Could insects be the food of the future?

Christmas is coming, so it’s more than probably you’ve started to think about the Christmas dishes you’re going to prepare for your relatives and friends. However, how do you think they would react if you offer them dishes made of insects instead of the traditional Christmas’ meals we’re used to? Rejection, disgust, curiosity…

Eating insects has become an exotic and atypical practice in almost all western societies, despite insects were once an important foodstuff for humans all around the world. Why? In addition, what if I tell you that eating insects could be a nice solution for almost all sustainability problems western societies are experimenting nowadays? Keep reading to find out the reason.

The entomophagy over the centuries 

Despite eating insects seems odd for most of us, the entomophagy (from the Greek terms ἔντομος [éntomos], ‘insect, and φᾰγεῖν [făguein], ‘to eat’) has had an important weight for almost all humans’ diet throughout history. In fact, there are numerous allusions to consumption of insects in different religious documents from Christianism, Islam and Judaism.

insect_food_stall
Stall of edible insects in Bangkok (Thailand) (Source: Takoradee, CC).

In Europe, the first references about entomophagy come from Ancient Greece, where eating cicadas was considered a delicatessen. Aristoteles left proof of this practice at Historia Animalium (384-322 b.C.), and according to him, female cicadas taste better after mating because they are full of eggs.

cigarra_cicada
Cicada (Source: CostaPPPR, CC).

Other many documents show how usual was to eat insects in those times: Diodorus (200 b.C), from Sicilia, called people from Ethiopia as ‘Acridophagi’ because of their diet based on grasshoppers and locusts (family Acrididade). Pliny the Elder from the Ancient Rome and author of Historia Naturalis refers in his work to a dish loved by romans called ‘cossus’ which, according to Bodenheimer (1951), was prepared with beetle larvae of the species Cerambyx cerdo.

In Asia, Chinese literature usually refers to entomophagy and the use of insects in traditional medicine. In the Compendium of Materia Medica (Li Shizhen, Ming Dynasty, (1368–1644)) there are listed a big amount of recipes based on the use of insects along with their medicinal attributes.

Why do some western societies stopped eating insects?

Despite insects were always been an essential element in human diet since the beginning of times and that they keep being eaten in different countries around the world, they started to be seen as a taboo in modern western societies (specially on Europe and the USA). Which could be the cause of this change?

The most feasible reason remains linked with the origin of agriculture and livestock. The Fertile Crescent, an historical region containing western territories of Asia, the Nile Valley and the Nile Delta, is considered the birth place of agriculture and, secondarily, livestock (Western Neolithic Revolution). From this moment on, these practices started to spread towards Europe, so they eventually replaced hunting and gathering of resources as the main food sources.

fertile_crescent_map
Fertile Crescent region (Source: NormanEinstein, CC).

So, the consume of insects was eventually replaced by the consume of meat, especially from herbivorous and omnivorous animals which, in addition, offered a wider variety of products: fur and leather, lactic products, traction power and a new mean of transport. Thus, agriculture and livestock became common practices all over Europe as they relate to more stable food sources. Animal hunting and the consume of insects are both ways very dependent on seasonality to obtain food, so they shifted to the background and started to be considered primitive practices.

However, the reason that finally leaded people to feel aversion to the consumption of insects probably was the negative impact these organisms cause on agriculture. As this practice became the main source of food for many western countries, insects started being seen as a problem for agriculture productivity in the way they become plagues. In addition, population density, especially in more urbanized places, ease the transmission of vector-borne diseases.

Out of western influence, the consumption of insects is very usual in different countries. There exist many reasons that could explain this: a greater contact with nature in less urbanized societies, the development of a less extensive agriculture or a late introduction of agriculture could have perpetuated the consumption of insects in this countries.

insectos_consumo
Estimated number of edible insects species consumed by countries, according to different studies (Source: Centre for Geo Information, Wageningen University, according to the information gathered by Jongema, 2012; image from FAO’s report “Edible Insects: future prospects for food and feed security”).
insects_consumed_species
Most consumed families of insects over the world (Source: Jongema, 2012; image from FAO’s report “Edible Insects: future prospects for food and feed security”).

Insects: resources from the past that could be a solution for the future

As insects shifted to the background in western diets, their commercialization for human consumption in many of these countries lack of a properly regulation. Unlike other regions over the world, insects’ commercialization as food in the European Union was blocked. However, in 2013 the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations) published a report in which it listed the benefits of eating insects, trying to urge European countries and other developed western societies to regulate insects’ commercialization as one of the ways to reach a more sustainable diet.

Which benefits would entail to give insects a major weight in western diets?

Public health

  • Source of proteins and fatty acids. The body of some insects can reach almost 70% of protein content. According to different experts, the consumption of insects could be a good solution to relieve children’s undernourishment due to their high content on fatty acids. Moreover, according to the Entomological Society of the United States, termites, caterpillars, grasshoppers, flies, spiders and weevils are richer protein sources than other domestic animals, such as chickens and cows.
insectos_proteinas
Approximate proportion of protein content in grasshoppers and beef mince (Source: Entomological Gastronomy, 2015; information from FAO’s report “Edible Insects: future prospects for food and feed security”).
  • Source of minerals and fiber. About 1 of 2 pregnant women and almost 40% of preschool children in develop countries are believed to suffer from anaemia (lack of iron) as a consequence of a poor diet, which can drive them to develop problems in physical and cognitive development, to have an increased risk of morbidity in children and a reduced work productivity in adults. Insects contain a great amount of different micronutrients, such as iron, copper, magnesium, phosphorus, manganese, selenium and zinc. Moreover, they are a great source of fiber as they have a lot of chitin, the main structural component of arthropods’ cuticle. Chitin has a molecular structure similar to plants’ cellulose and also has an important role on intestinal health.
  • They have a reduced risk to transmit zoonotic diseases. There exist no evidences of the transmission of zoonotic diseases derived from insects’ consumption the way it happens with chickens and cows (avian flu or mad cow disease). However, there still are not enough studies that supports the total harmlessness of insects’ consumption. Although they could produce allergies the way crustaceans do, it would be necessary to study this question further.

Environmental and economical health

  • They have high feed-conversion efficiency. This is, an animal’s capacity to convert feed mass into increased body mass, represented as kg of feed per kg of weight gain. Insects have a greater capacity to transform what they eat in body mass and growth than any other domestic animal. So, it’s not necessary to invest so many resources on feeding them. This fact is increasingly important as world population is growing faster day by day along with food demand, so the necessity to take advantage of more terrains is getting enormous (pastures, crops, etc.).

    insectos_eficiencia
    For every 10 kg of feed mass invested, there are produced 9 kg of insect’s biomass and only 1 kg of beef meat (Source: Entomological Gastronomy, 2015; information from FAO’s report “Edible Insects: future prospects for food and feed security”).
  • Revalorisation of organic waste. Insects can be reared on organic side streams, such as compost or animal faeces. This can reduce environmental contamination and add value to all these wastes.  
  • Their are relatively less contaminant than other animals. Insects emit relatively few GHGs gases and relatively little ammonia, which mostly derives from organic wastes, such as animal faeces. Thus, its impact on air, ground and water health is almost negligible.
ghg
Emission of GHGs (top) and ammonium (bottom) per kg of weight gain in three species of insects, pigs and beef cattle (Source: Oonincx et al., 2010; information from FAO’s report “Edible Insects: future prospects for food and feed security”).
  • Less consume of water. Lack of water affects most of humanity and endangers biodiversity. Insects rearing requires significantly less water than cattle rearing.

Despite all the advantages linked to the consume of insects, in Europe only the Great Britain, France, Holland and Belgium had the properly regulation to permit the commercialisation of insects as humans’ food in 2013.

.          .          .

Introducing insects on western diet could be a great solution for most of problems western developed societies suffer nowadays. However, there’s still reticence to eat insects due to the lack of information, the cultural background and the lack of studies. But, as it happened with other exotic foods, such as raw fish and sushi, it’s possible that we can buy insects or insect-derived products at supermarkets in a near future.

Do you feel ready to change your diet in order to be more sustainable?

REFERENCES

Main photography property of Sean Gallup (GettyImages).

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