Edible Insects: The Alternative Protein People are Buzzing About
If you really are what you eat, then people who nosh on insects are eating well for themselves and the earth. That’s because this alternative protein offers a host of dietary benefits while reducing the carbon footprint of food choices.
How? Turns out, edible crickets do it in lots of ways. For starters, they eat less and don’t need as much water as other more traditional protein sources (i.e., meat). They share space with humans much more economically and generate far fewer harmful gases. And they do that all while providing protein levels that are comparable with most of our usual sources such as eggs and meat. And insect protein comes in some baking and cooking-ready ingredients, such as flour.
While eating horse is perfectly normal in Belgium, it is taboo in the U.S. Similarly, most people in this country may react with disgust if you tell them you added tarantula to a sandwich, whereas in Cambodia and Venezuela, the furry spiders are cooked and eaten whole, similar to soft-shell crab or shrimp.1
Here’s the thing: We may not like the idea of eating insects, but over the years, our collective attitude will likely change – mostly because it has to. With rampant population growth and scarce land, we have no choice but to embrace alternative forms of protein if we hope to survive. Even our overfished oceans, which will comprise 50 percent plastic waste by 2050, won’t keep us alive.2
Insects as a protein staple isn’t such a crazy idea. Today, 2 billion people consume up to 1,900 varieties of edible insects.3 Just under one-quarter of the world’s population of 7.4 billion people have embraced this nutritious food source, and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations is eager to increase that figure as an environmental and social imperative.4
Entomophagy is the fancy term used to refer to the act of eating insects. The most commonly eaten insects include beetles, caterpillars, bees, wasps, ants, grasshoppers, locusts, and crickets. They are packed with healthy fats and protein and contain high levels of calcium, iron, and zinc.5 And contrary to what your gag reflex may be telling you, insects can taste really good. Read on to find out how you can find insects and insect protein to eat, as well as learn more of the benefits of this alternative protein source.
In 2011, Angelina Jolie told Huffington Post her kids eat crickets like Doritos.6 They reportedly loved them so much she had to nix them; she was concerned her children might get sick from overconsumption. So where did Jolie source them? Does she have to fly her children to some foreign country to sample cricket chips? Turns out she doesn’t have to, and neither do we.
The 2 billion people already eating insects have been rearing and harvesting them as part of their normal subsistence traditions for eons. While they can be harvested from the wild, semi-domesticated in the wild, or farmed, 92 percent of species are wild-harvested.7 Most of the edible terrestrial insects are herbivores, while aquatic species worth eating are predators. And believe it or not, these insects are in such high demand they are being over-harvested, prompting groups including the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) to establish conservation programs aimed at sustainable production of this valuable food source. In 2014, 11 countries around the world had established commercial insect harvesting operations in the wild, from Australia to Vietnam, India, and beyond.8
In Europe and the U.S., we have been slower to catch on to this growing trend. But in recent years, budding entrepreneurs have heard the buzz and pioneered a suite of new technologies and methodologies to allow sustainable production of insects.
Open Bug Farm
Tiny Farms, a California-based insect farm, pioneered an open source approach to growing bugs for food. They call their project Open Bug Farm.9 While the company no longer sells kits to grow a mealworm farm at home, the open source project has an active community where people share information and advice on raising different species of insects.
Big Cricket Farms
In Ohio, a group raises tropical banded crickets en masse. Smaller than the European cricket, these are reportedly highly nutritious and delicious. Fed only organic feed, the crickets are raised in giant containers in a clean and climate-controlled environment. Their lifecycle is eight to 12 weeks, but in Youngstown, they are harvested at six weeks. And unlike traditional protein sources (such as beef, pork, or chicken) that are slaughtered before consumption, crickets are frozen, which puts them in a dormant state called diapause. They are then placed in a deeper freeze, which kills them humanely. This also ensures optimal freshness.10
For recipe ideas, the website Insects Are Food has you covered. Some include cricket pad Thai, cricket fritters, and even chocolate-covered crickets for dessert.
LIVIN Farms Hive
If you’d rather breed your own food, LIVIN Farms is the way to go. They developed the world’s first desktop hive for edible insects, raising more than $145,000 on Kickstarter to take their concept to market.11 These mealworms are fed scraps from your kitchen, ensuring the user has control over their nutritional intake. With this system, it’s possible to grow up to 500 grams of protein a week, which is the equivalent to just over one pound of meat.
This Texas-based company, which was created by five McGill University MBA students, has operations in the U.S., Mexico, and Ghana. Aspire raises Aketta insects offered either as crunchy snacks or flour, which can be made into baked goods or pancakes.12
Environmental Benefits of Edible Insects
At this point, you may still wonder why people would want to get on the bug train. Why switch out a juicy chicken cordon bleu for cricket du jour? Well, the Earth depends on it.
According to the FAO, insects require significantly less feed to grow and create a comparable amount of protein than other food animals – largely because they are cold-blooded and don’t require food energy to maintain their body temperature. As a result, two kilograms of feed produces one kilogram of insect protein, whereas cattle require four times as much feed to produce one kilogram of beef.13
Also, it is well understood that raising livestock is one of the main causes of greenhouse gas emissions, which in turn accelerate climate change. Methane doesn’t last as long in the atmosphere, but according to the Environmental Protection Agency, its impact on climate change pound-for-pound is 25 times higher than carbon dioxide over a 100-year period.14 Insects, on the other hand, can actually help break down waste that would otherwise release heat-trapping gas into the atmosphere. Plus, they require significantly less space to rear. Think how many crickets you could raise in an industrial-sized feedlot.
While they make a great food source for humans, using insects for animal feed can help reduce the environmental impact of monocultures such as soy and corn. The FAO suggests the larvae of the black soldier fly, common housefly, and the yellow mealworm have the most potential for large-scale feed production, which would also help to reduce land pressures. The right kinds of insects are good for the Earth and they’re good for you.
The FAO warns that just like any food, the nutritional value of any given insect depends in large measure on how it is prepared. Deep-fried crickets, for instance, would probably have fewer nutrients than a light cricket stir-fry. Still, they note some of the micronutrients, such as copper, iron, magnesium, manganese, selenium, zinc, and more, can be derived from certain species. Additionally, some insects are high in polyunsaturated fatty acids, and frequently contain linoleic and a-linoleic acids that are considered particularly beneficial to developing children. Some are high in healthy fats, and you’d probably have to eat truckloads of insects to gain significant weight – except if you eat too many green weaver ants from Australia, which are highly caloric compared to other species.15
Bug Bites to Try
If you’re curious to give some bug bites a go, consider these existing edible insect products. And stay tuned: This industry is growing.
If you love a good protein bar before or after a workout, mid-hike, or as a quick, shelf-stable snack for the car, Chapul offers a range of flavors made with cricket protein. Dairy- and soy-free, they offer a sustainable and healthy alternative to existing protein bars. The average 220-calorie bar contains 8 grams of protein, 3 grams of fiber, 27 grams of carbohydrates, 18 grams of sugar, and 8 grams of fat.
If your kids constantly ask for sweet treats but you’re reluctant to ply them with high-fructose corn syrup and other junk, consider larvet worm snacks that come in BBQ, cheddar, and Mexican spice flavors. You can also try chocolate-dipped varieties. At just 9 calories apiece, they have a negligible impact on your waistline.
This U.K.-based organization has a huge variety of edible insects for sale. From giant grasshoppers and silkworm pupae flour to Thai scorpions, EdibleUnique seem to have one of the largest selections available on the market.
Remarkably, buying cricket flour to use as an alternative in baked goods, smoothies, and more is incredibly easy. Companies all across the Internet offer ground-up insects for sale for roughly $15 for a pound compared to $8 to 10 for a pound of whey – depending on your sources.16 Just make sure you choose an organic product that is 100 percent cricket (and not mixed with some other mysterious ingredient).
A food revolution is underway as we find better methods of protein production to feed a growing population on a stressed-out planet. With more and more ways to access insects, innovative gourmands continue to make the transition to this brave new world as smooth as possible.
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