THEY’RE SAID TO BE CHEAP, NUTRITIOUS AND BETTER FOR THE ENVIRONMENT. BUT COULD YOU REALLY SUBSIST ON A DIET OF WORMS AND BEES? WE LOOK AT THE NEXT BIG FOOD TREND: EDIBLE INSECTS.
Would you eat a cheesy grasshopper burger, bamboo worm ice cream, chocolate- covered crickets, or a crunchy trail mix made with caterpillar larvae and locusts? Don’t make a face – insects are poised to become the next big culinary trend, and if some companies have their way, we’re going to be seeing these – and more – creepy crawly-based foods in restaurants and supermarkets in the near future.
AN AGE-OLD DIETARY STAPLE
The human practice of eating insects, called entomophagy, is not new. For millennia, insects have been a dietary staple for people in Asia, Africa, South America and Australia. In fact, it is thought that over 1,000 species are eaten in about 80 per cent of the world’s nations. The Chinese, for instance, warm up with hot ant soup during the winter months. In Brazil, fried queen ants are a popular snack, and in Japan, one can ﬁnd restaurants serving boiled wasp larvae, fried cicadas and fried grasshoppers.
According to Claudia Correia, a dietitian at Raffles Hospital, edible insects are an excellent source of protein, although their overall nutritional value depends on the way they’re cooked and their metamorphic stage. “The protein content of an insect can range anywhere from 13 per cent to 77 per cent of dry matter,” she states.
“Insects are also rich in ﬁbre, and healthy monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. The unsaturated omega-3 fatty acid content in some has even been said to be comparable with ﬁsh. Insects are also rich in minerals like copper, iron, magnesium, manganese, phosphorous, selenium and zinc, and vitamins like riboﬂavin, pantothenic acid, biotin and folic acid.”
A MORE SUSTAINABLE WAY TO EAT
Nutritional value aside, edible insects are increasingly being recognised as a solution to a number of global problems – from food shortages and waste, to greenhouse gas emissions, and land as well as water scarcity.
“The methane produced by livestock is a huge part of greenhouse gas emissions,” says Susie Rucker, a nutritional therapist at Body With Soul at Rochester Park. “Collectively, farmed animals like cows, pigs, chickens and sheep also utilise a great deal of water and take up a lot of land – natural resources that the world just doesn’t have enough of.
“Edible insect rearing takes up hardly any space and uses very little water. In this sense, it is a more viable food alternative. Toxins are also a problem for our farming and ﬁshing industries, because they are affecting the nutritional content of our livestock and ﬁsh. But we don’t seem to have the same problem with insect farming, at least so far. Unlike livestock, there is also zero waste with insects because you’re eating the whole thing, exoskeleton and all. I would therefore say that insects are a far more sustainable way for the world to eat protein.”
Claudia agrees. “There is already a great global demand for livestock, and this is set to double over the next 50 years,” she explains. “Livestock production already accounts for 70 per cent of agricultural land and uses up to eight per cent of the drinkable water in the world.”
Another environmental beneﬁt of edible insects, according to a 2013 Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) of the United Nations’ Forestry paper: They have high feed- conversion efficiency. This is an animal’s capacity to convert feed mass into increased body mass, represented as kilogram of feed per kilogram of weight gain. Crickets, for example, require only 2kg of feed for every kilo of body weight gain, whereas for cattle, that number is 10kg.
It is no surprise, then, that since 2003, the FAO has been developing several programmes to create awareness of the consumption of insects. Some are also currently being farmed in countries such as Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and China. “Rearing insects is important to reduce the negative environmental impact from over- harvesting,” Claudia adds. “These insects are used for human consumption, as feed for other animals or poultry, and also for their medicinal properties.”
WHEN BUGS ARE BAD
The most commonly eaten insect groups are beetles, caterpillars, bees, wasps, ants, grasshoppers, locusts, crickets, cicadas, leaf and plant-hoppers, scale insects and true bugs, termites, dragonﬂies and ﬂies. But Claudia warns that some insects are considered toxic. For instance, tessaratomids, which are large, usually colourful bugs, can cause severe body pain and even temporary blindness if ingested.
Some may contain excessive cadmium or lead, or even pesticides, and may pose a health risk when consumed. “In these cases, regulated insect rearing is beneﬁcial, since all chemical and pesticide exposure is controlled,” Claudia points out.
Like most foods that contain protein, arthropods may induce immunoglobulin-mediated reactions in sensitive people. These allergens may cause eczema, dermatitis, rhinitis, conjunctivitis, congestion, angioedema and bronchial asthma. Long-term exposure may also lead to allergic sensitivity. This is more evident in people who are constantly in contact with insects, like those who rear them.
People with pollen allergies should not consume honeybee larvae as they contain pollen. But generally, says Claudia, if you have no history of arthropod or insect allergen sensitivity, you don’t have to worry about developing an allergic reaction from ingesting or coming into contact with insects.
WOULD YOU EAT THEM?
Eating whole bugs may sound unappetising, but if you are keen to incorporate insect protein into your diet, there’s always insect ﬂour, insect granola bars, cricket cookies, mealworm-and- chocolate spread, insect candy, and even worm burgers and nuggets. These more palatable products can be purchased online or at specialty health food stores.
If you do consume any of these insect-based items, Susie advises you to check the label for ingredients like sugar, salt, oil, ﬂavours, colours and other additives. “Insect protein is certainly healthy, but only if eaten whole,” she says. “You may not have access to whole insects or may not dare eat them in this form, so consuming insect-based products is the next best thing. But you want to go for the least processed items because the addition of sugar, colours, preservatives and so on changes the nutritional value of the food.
So instead of buying insect cookies, for example, it might be a better idea to make them at home using, say, cricket ﬂour and other healthy ingredients. That way, you can control what goes into them and get to enjoy a nutritious home-made treat.”