Could you eat something that once crawled on the floor or buzzed in your ear?
The idea of edible bugs may sound strange among Western diners, but entomophagy, or the practice of eating insects, is anything but new in Asia, Africa, and South America. “There are many cultures that have included insects as part of their diet for centuries,” says Sujaya Rao, PhD, professor and head of the department of entomology at the University of Minnesota in St. Paul. At the same time, “this is the food of the future. We will need alternative foods that can be raised in small environments and are easy to raise,” she says. Insects answer that call.
Healthwise, insects tick several nutritional boxes. “Think about an insect. It’s so small, but picture a bee flying or a grasshopper jumping. They require a lot of muscle and energy to do those things,” says Dr. Rao. You benefit from that when you eat them. In general, bug insects are rich in protein and low in carbohydrates, and contain essential minerals including iron, zinc, calcium, and magnesium. They are also rich in unsaturated fat, which is a healthier source of fat than saturated fat.
According to a review, the protein content of edible insects ranges from 35 to 60 percent dry weight (after being processed) or 10 to 25 percent fresh weight, which is higher than plant protein sources like cereals, soybeans, and lentils and can sometimes be greater than meat and eggs, says Antonette Hardie, a registered dietitian nutritionist at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in Columbus. Their fat content ranges widely, from 10 to 60 percent, and it’s mostly healthy, unsaturated fats, she adds.
Important, too, are the environmental benefits of eating bugs. “Consuming insects could potentially help solve food access, cost, and environmental issues in the United States,” says Hardie. As Rao points out, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (PDF) published a report looking ahead to 2050, when the worldwide population will be an estimated 9 billion. Insects, the report acknowledges, are a more sustainable option to help rectify food scarcity due to lack of farmland, overfished oceans, and the effects of climate change and water shortages. Insects require far less water, land, and feed to raise, compared with conventional animals like cattle.
There are almost 2,000 species of insects eaten worldwide, says Rao. Promoting edible bug doesn’t mean foraging for them in your backyard. “We’re talking about raising them in really clean environments,” she says. Insects have to eat organic food; if they were to feast on pesticide-laden feed, they’d die. Today, you can buy products in which insects have been processed into flours that you can use in everyday cooking and baking or in which they’re combined with familiar flavors or prepared as familiar foods (such as bars or cookies).
If eating bugs is something you’ve never considered before, that’s okay. But don’t write them off — they’re a staple of many cultures. “Do you eat crabs, lobsters, and prawns? Those are close relatives of insects, and they are the bottom feeders of the ocean,” says Rao. “It’s all in the mind. Consider trying it to see if you embrace different products.”
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