Nutrition is ever-evolving as we search for new ways to put different types of protein in our diets. Bring up the subject of eating insects, and people instinctively picture a scene from the television show Fear Factor. But who of you have ever eaten insects? About one-third of the world’s population eats insects on a regular basis. But entomophagy (the eating of insects) has never caught on in the West. Yet, every one of you is eating insects, without any exception. You’re eating more than a pound of insects per year. Wait…how? Tomato soup, peanut butter, chocolate, noodles — any processed food that you’re eating contains insects, because insects are here, all around us, and when they’re out there in nature they also make their way into food processing plants and also into your food.
Now you may say, “Okay, so we’re eating a pound of insects by accident.” Wrong, we’re even doing this on purpose. Many foods are made with insects, think pink cookies or surimi sticks (Campari). Food products that are “natural red food coloring,” are dyed with insect called cochineal. Surimi sticks are being sold as crab meat, but they are white fish dyed with cochineal. Even Starbucks uses cochineal to make their strawberry Frappuccino red in color. Cochineal is a product of an insect that lives off cacti. It’s produced in massive amounts, 150 to 180 metric tons per year in South America. It’s big business (it costs about $50 dollars per kilogram).
In a “small,” provincial town in China, Lijiang (there are about two million inhabitants), if you go out for a fish dinner, you not only can select the fish you eat, you can also select which insects you would like to eat. And they prepare it in a wonderful way. Here you can enjoy a meal with caterpillars, locusts, bee pupae – all are delicacies. So, in China, they are eating insects in regular life, while the US and other western countries opt out.
Why not eat insects? Well first, what are insects? Insects are animals that walk around on six legs. There are easily two million species of insects on this planet, outnumbering humans 200 million to one. In fact, of all animals on Earth, eighty percent walk on six legs. We’re not on a planet of men, we’re on a planet of insects. Insects are not only in nature, they also are involved in our economy, think pollination. A third all fruits that we eat are a result of insects facilitating the reproduction of plants. Insects control pests, and they’re food for animals. Small and large animals eat insects. Even larger animals eat insects. But the small animals that eat insects are being eaten by larger animals…the cycle of life.
Now the situation in the world is going to change for you and me, for everyone on this Earth. The human population is growing very rapidly. Currently, we have somewhere around six billion people, anticipated to grow to nearly nine billion by 2050. That means that we will have a lot more mouths to feed. We would need an agricultural production increase of more than 50 percent. Even more, we’re also getting wealthier, and anyone that gets wealthier starts to eat more meat. It’s possible that we could better balance the amount of protein we eat by adding in insects.
Americans eat a lot of meat and animal proteins. Most of us get it from livestock, from fish, from game. On average, we eat about 100 kilograms per person per year (depending on the statistic you read). In the developing world, it’s much lower; it’s 25 kilograms per person per year. But this is increasing daily. In China, it increased from 20 to 50 kilograms in just 20 years. So, if a third of the world population is going to increase its meat consumption from 25 to about 80 on average, and a third of the world population is living in China and in India, there is going to be an enormous demand on meat.
A Return to our Origins?
Before hunting tools and agriculture evolved it is reasonable to assume that we consumed insects, probably many them. Insects gave early man much of the important protein needed for survival. The consumption of edible insects – coleopteran, bees, worms, larvae, crickets, termites, locusts are all examples of types of edible insects that many people already consume today. It easy to fathom that early man subsisted on insects as well as wild animals. In fact, we all consume about a half a kilogram per year of insects in our fruits, comfitures, compotes, vegetables, breads, and more.
The Limits of Consuming Insects
- There does exist a psychological phobia of eating insects (even though we consume them all the time).
- Protein bars made with insect protein are not recommended for people with allergies to shellfish as they may have a similar reaction.
- The consumption of edible insects on a very large scale could affect insect biodiversity. This is the reason some countries, like France, have not yet permitted insect-containing food products (even though they eat a lot of frogs and snails!)
- Most meals made with whole insects taste very different than what we are used to eating. Using insects for things like cricket flour seems to be the best option for increasing protein in our food while not affecting taste.
So What’s the Problem with U.S. Protein Sources?
Most protein bars are made with proteins from cow’s milk – either casein or whey protein. There are some issues with milk proteins, including allergies and most vegetarians will not eat them. Vegan bars have been popular as of late: NAKD, RAW BITE, VEGA SPORT, PALEO CRUNCH, etc. The makers of these bars must source alternative proteins for these bars: pea protein, vegetable protein, rice protein, soy protein, chia protein, hemp protein, and the list goes on. The disadvantages of vegetarian sources of protein are that they are expensive to manufacture and lack a complete amino acid profile. Cricket protein, on the other hand, is very comparable to dairy and chicken protein.
Why Not Protein Bars from Insect Protein?
Energy and protein bars represent a large segment of the sport food market. The evolution of sport bars in the future will involve alternative protein sources. There is a lot of interest in using insect protein in our commercial products. Many countries like The Netherlands are leading the way. Sport bars such as Gyro, Exo-Protein, Chapul bars, Crowbar protein, Bitty cricket flour cookies, and others are already on the market there. What types of insects are utilized?
Worm flour – This is made by milling the larvae that love flour. The larvae possess multiple nutrients and high-quality complete proteins. These larvae possess a bitterness that is compensated for by the integration of other ingredients like fruits and hazelnuts.
Cricket flour – Crickets are composed of 65% protein, which is on par with beef and chicken meat (when fed a grain-based diet). Even more, they contain 6.3 mg of iron per 100 grams, and B vitamins as well as essential fatty acids. Cricket flour has a neutral taste that makes it ideal for not altering the taste of whatever it is mixed with. Locust flour is equally rich in vitamins and proteins like cricket flour.
Advantages of Consuming Crickets
- Eco-responsibility. Consuming insects contribute less to global warming as they spew out less greenhouse gases. Insects for commercial use are raised on specialized farms, rather than taking them from the wild. And these farms take up far less space than animal farms.
- Insects constitute an alternative source of industrial protein powder and can decrease the amount of milk protein used.
- Insects possess an exceptional nutrient density: vitamin B12, iron zinc, magnesium, proteins, essential fatty acids (omega 3 and 6 and 9), and fiber.
- The consumption of insects is compatible with most vegetarians (not vegans).
- The extraction of proteins from insects is done via “soft technologies” such as pulverization, centrifugation, and cooking at very low temperatures in order to not disrupt the protein structure.
- Cricket flour possesses a neutral taste that does not generally alter the taste of the food product.
- One advantage of eating insects over meat is lack of infection. When pigs and cows get sick, and humans consume their meat, we risk becoming sick also. With insects, this is not a concern because they are very distantly related to us.
- Conversion factor. It takes about 10 kilograms of feed to get one kilogram of beef. With locusts, you get about nine kilograms of locust meat. So, if you were an entrepreneur, what would you do? (However this is appears not to be true with farmed raised crickets fed grain diets).
- The environment. There are fewer waste products with insect production, which means much less methane and ammonia and other greenhouse gases being put into the atmosphere.
- Protein quality. The big question in this whole discussion is whether or not the quality of insect meat is good enough substitute for protein. In fact, it is very good, nearly comparable to meat or dairy. One kilograms of grasshoppers has about the same number of calories as hamburger meat.
- People who are allergic to meat, dairy, and soy can tolerate cricket flour just fine.
- Innovative companies have recently been pushing to add insect protein into our foods. Insect protein represents a hope for resolving the problem of protein consumption in the world.
So, we probably need to get used to the idea of eating insects. Maybe by 2020, you’ll buy them regularly at the grocery store