Entomophagy: are insects the food of the future?

Imagine being transported 100 years into the future, what will have changed? What will have stayed the same, and what will have disappeared completely? With the modern fears of overpopulation, climate change and extinction, what will we leave behind for the future generation? There are endless numbers of issues that need to be addressed, including the matter of overpopulation, which presents an ongoing challenge that scientists are working hard to overcome. The population is growing too fast to be sustained by the limited resources that our planet can provide.

A bowl of high protein grub worms being prepared for human consumption Image: T.K Naliaka

To be critical, the United Nation’s goal to achieve food security, malnutrition, and ending world hunger by 2030 seems slightly out of reach, but possible. If it were achieved, it would be interesting to see what changes will have been made to ensure a sustainable agricultural future, which, in light of poverty, food shortages, and climate change, sounds like an impossible task to achieve. Paradoxically, the solution might actually be in our past; entomophagy, the practice of eating insects.

It is agreeable that insects for food are considered a western taboo; people associate it with primitive and barbaric lifestyles or even as a last resort in times of famine. It is natural to think that eating those small critters often considered pests hardly sounds appetising, but where does this disgust come from?

In many places in the world, such as Latin America, Sub-Saharan Africa and the Asia-Pacific region, thousands of different insects are eaten as delicacies. Interestingly, a study conducted by Blackwell and d’Errico (2011) discovered that early hominids in southern Africa could’ve used bone tools to harvest termites for food as suggested by evidence of wear patterns. In retrospect, insects have been a part of our diet for hundreds of thousands of years, and perhaps it should be re-explored in the current age.

An example of a Thai style insect dish Image: smalljude {flickr}

Of course, the questions remain, why insects, and how might they be the solution to feeding the current and ever-expanding population? Lots of research has been conducted, and other work is still being done with the goal of answering them, and so far the statistics are worth considering. The three main advantages of welcoming insects into our diets are the result of their abundance, nutritional benefits and lower ecological footprint.

Over 2000 insects are consumed worldwide, allowing for a diverse selection, offering different tastes and textures. Due to their natural abundance, food security can be assured, provided that sustainable methods of harvest are practised.

Furthermore, many studies including those conducted by Dennis Oonincx et al. (2010) suggest that insects could serve as a more environmentally friendly alternative for the production of animal-derived protein with respect to greenhouse gases, land use and water use. For example, broiler chickens emit 32-167% higher emissions compared to that of mealworms, and 1g of edible beef protein uses up 8-14 times more land and 500% more water compared to that of mealworms. With an ever-expanding consumer-conscious community, eating insects could be a solution for those who are searching for a more environmentally friendly protein substitute.

In terms of nutrition, insects are not inferior to any other source of animal-derived protein such as fish, meats and chicken; they are just as wholesome of a protein source. The protein content in insects varies greatly ranging from 7-91%, depending on the species, its developmental stage and its environmental diet. Insects are rich in healthy fats and vitamins; a study conducted by Arnold van Huis suggested that 100g dietary intake of African palm weevil will meet the recommended daily intake of magnesium, manganese, iron, zinc and copper. This is vital to consider as eating insects high in protein and fats could help combat malnutrition, pollution and global warming.

Evidently, eating insects is not a novel concept; the idea has been up in the air for years, but is often disregarded in the western world due to ‘consumer disgust’. Accepting insects as food will arguably be the hardest challenge to overcome, but once society recognises the benefits outweigh the negative social stigma, it might just be the solution we all need to feed an ever-growing human population.

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