Linda Crampton is a writer and former science teacher with an honors degree in biology. She enjoys writing about science and nature.
A Food That Is Rich in Protein
The idea of eating insects may sound repulsive to some people and mouthwatering to others. The animals are an optional part of our diet at the moment, but they may be required in the future. They are a protein-rich and nutritious food that can be produced with far fewer resources than traditional farm animals. Farming insects is also a much more environmentally friendly method of food production than other farming methods.
Many cultures and countries already eat insects, a process known as entomophagy. Deep-fried species are a popular snack in countries such as Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam, for example. Almost everyone else eats insects, too, although they may not realize this. Most foods obtained from plants contain tiny bits of insect bodies. These "enriched" foods include some vegetables, fruits and grains, peanut butter, spices, and chocolate.
Many experts say that a food crisis is looming. The Earth's population is continuing to grow, but the increase in the amount of food that is available isn't keeping pace. We will almost certainly have to turn to nontraditional sources of nourishment for at least some of our calories in the future. Insects are a prime candidate for one of these new types of food.
It's very important that people don't collect one of the insects mentioned in this article and eat it without doing further research. Special procedures may be necessary before an insect classified as edible is actually safe to eat. Identifying the insect correctly is also important.
Insects have been eaten by humans for thousands of years. It's estimated that today about 2 billion people eat insects as a regular part of their diet and that at least 1,900 different species of the animals are eaten. Examples of edible insects include some crickets, grasshoppers, locusts, cockroaches, beetles, termites, ants, bees, wasps, caterpillars, and mealworms. Bugs are widely eaten, too. In North America, the word "bug" is often used by the general public to mean "insect," but bugs are actually a distinct order of the class Insecta (the order Hemiptera).
Humans eat all stages of an insect's life cycle—adults, nymphs (immature stages), pupae, and eggs. Not all of the life stages of a particular species may be edible, however. Today some insects are farmed, but in many countries wild varieties are caught by the local people. These may provide an important source of income.
Insects are sometimes eaten raw but are often cooked. Preparation techniques include boiling, roasting, grilling, and baking. Insects are also stir-fried, deep-fried, or added to porridge or rice. In many parts of the world today, the animals are considered to be a delicacy. The video below shows insects for sale at a Thailand food market.
Globally, the most consumed insects are: beetles (31 percent); caterpillars (18 percent); bees, wasps and ants (14 percent); and grasshoppers, locusts and crickets (13 percent).
— Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations
Feeding an Increasing Population
The United States Census Bureau, the United Nations, and FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations) have published some alarming information in relation to the production of food for humans.
- As of the first quarter in 2022, the world's population was believed to be almost 7.9 billion people. As might be expected, stating an exact number of people in the world at a specific point in time is impossible. Multiple agencies agree that the current number is close to 8 billion, however.
- The population is projected to reach 9 billion by 2050.
- The World Food Programme says that "up to 811 million people do not have enough food and 48.9 million people are facing emergency levels of hunger."
- Forests and grasslands in many parts of the world are being destroyed to make room for livestock.
- At the moment, approximately one third of the arable land on Earth is used for growing feed for livestock.
Professor Arnold van Huis is an entomologist at Wageningen University in the Netherlands. With reference to our increasing desire for meat, he's been quoted as saying "If we continue like this we will need another Earth."
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Problems Caused by Meat Production
Animal farming methods can cause big problems for the environment. These problems are becoming more serious because fields filled with free roaming livestock are disappearing in many parts of the world. Industrial or factory farming is taking over. In these operations, animals are crowded into enclosures and produce concentrated waste, runoff, and odor.
- According to FAO, 14.5% of the greenhouse gases created as a result of human activity are produced by farm animals. Greenhouse gases in the atmosphere absorb heat released by the Earth's surface and then radiate it back to the Earth.
- The main greenhouse gases released by livestock are carbon dioxide and methane.
- The huge factory farms that are becoming common use large amounts of energy and fresh water.
- Runoff filled with animal waste causes soil erosion.
- The runoff may contaminate streams, rivers, and groundwater.
- Pesticides used on livestock may also escape into the environment.
There is another way in which livestock may affect their human environment. Antibiotics are given to many farm animals to keep them healthy and to enhance their growth. There are concerns that the presence of these medications in meat is contributing to antibiotic resistance in humans.
Environmental and Economic Benefits
Insects are abundant on Earth. Of course, even abundant animals can face population problems as a result of human pressure. Insects can be farmed, however. They produce many offspring and have a high reproductive rate.
Raising insects for food has important economic advantages compared to raising traditional livestock. Unlike mammals and birds, insects don't use food to produce heat to warm their bodies. They are therefore very efficient at converting the food that they eat into tissue that can nourish humans. According to FAO, 2 kg of feed is needed to produce 1 kg of insect meat while 8 kg of feed is required to produce 1 kg of beef.
Farming insects also has environmental benefits compared to farming other livestock. Insects produce much smaller amounts of methane and other greenhouse gases than traditional farm animals. They also produce much less ammonia, a pollutant made by pig and poultry farms, and much less manure.
Nutritional Benefits of Eating Insects
Some people might think that farming insects is pointless because a huge number of the animals would be required to produce as much meat as one cow. Many nutritionists say that North Americans are eating far more meat than is necessary for their health, however. In fact, the ingestion of excessive amounts of red meat has been linked to health problems. The big, juicy steak may become a thing of the past sooner than some people would like.
Insects are a nutritious food source. An in-depth analysis of the nutrients in their bodies hasn't been performed, however. We can't find insects on the online nutrient databases that are available, although we may be able to one day. It is known that they are an excellent source of protein, though, as well as a great source of vitamins and minerals, including calcium, iron, and zinc.
Marcel Dicke is another professor at Wageningen University. In the video below, he outlines the benefits of eating insects. He raises the point that many of us enjoy eating shrimp, which are relatives of insects. He says that we need to change our mindset to appreciate alternate food sources.
An Edible Insect Poll
A Novel Food in North America
Giving people who have never eaten insects before a plate of whole animals to ingest is probably not the best strategy for encouraging entomophagy. Grinding the roasted animals into a powder and then mixing this powder with other foods may be. This is the strategy that some companies in the United States are using. They hope that the disguised animals will be more palatable than the intact ones.
The number of U.S. companies selling products made of edible insects has increased substantially since I wrote the first edition of this article. Crickets seem to be the insect of choice for the products. The businesses that I've investigated are advertising energy bars, chips (crisps), cookie mix, and protein powder made from cricket flour. The products have enticing flavours such as vanilla, chocolate, coffee, and peanut butter.
One company has called their snack products made from crickets "chirps". The name is amusing, but I wonder if it will backfire on the producers. People may not want to be reminded of living insects as they eat a snack.
Contamination of Foods With Insect Parts
People in North America already practice entomophagy to a limited extent due to the presence of insects in foods that come from plants. According to the University of California, an average American today eats an estimated two pounds of insect bodies and body parts every year.
The FDA (Food and Drug Administration) has published a Food Defect Levels Handbook that lists the permissible level of contaminants—including insects—in foods. For example, the hops used to make beer may contain no more than 2,500 aphids per 10 grams of hops. I suggest that a person doesn't look at this document just before eating.
It's sometimes said that no one is really a vegan (a person who eats no animals) because of the insect contamination of plants. Although this is true, I think that the vegan diet still has value for someone who wants to protect animals. The more animals that are protected the better, even if some animals aren't helped by a person's efforts.
Eating Insects for the First Time
If you want to start eating insects, it might be a good idea to try one of the flour products first. They are available online if you can't find them locally. You might be able to find whole insects on the menu in ethnic restaurants. Some ethnic markets may sell the animals, too.
If you'd like to collect or farm your own insects, make sure that each specimen that you choose is truly edible. If you read that "grasshoppers" can be eaten, for example, remember that there are many different species of grasshoppers. You need to discover which species in your area are safe to ingest. Since some insects are edible in one stage of their life cycle but not in another, this is another factor to consider. You also need to find out if your chosen animals are safe only when cooked.
Wageningen University maintains a list of edible insects from around the world. Even experts can make mistakes, however. I suggest that you check multiple sources to see whether a particular species is edible.
Insect cookbooks are available. Some have interesting recipes for people keen to explore the world of entomophagy. It's important to remember that living insects play vital roles in our lives, however. Trapping insects for culinary use mustn't harm the populations of the wild animals. If the precautions are kept in mind, insects might become an important resource in the near future.
- World population clock from the United States Census Bureau
- "Ending Hunger" from the World Food Programme
- "Insects for food and feed" from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO)
- Food Security and Nutrition in the World Report from FAO
- Edible insects in the world: A link to a PDF list from Wageningen University and Research
- Information about eating insects from the University of California
- Food Defect Levels Handbook from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2014 Linda Crampton