Edible insects: sustainable food of the future?

Monday, 13 November, 2017

Since even the sight or sound of an insect can make some people’s skin crawl, the idea of eating them as part of our daily diet is not particularly appealing. While some Asian countries already use insects for both food and feed, they are a far cry from traditional Western food choices.

However, a review paper published in Nutrition Bulletin suggested their nutritional and sustainable qualities warrant us to disregard these squeamish thoughts, and start considering them as sustainable sources of food and feed for our continuously growing population.

Insects contain key micronutrients and high levels of protein that humans usually get from traditional protein sources such as cattle, chicken and pigs. In the review, it states that over 2000 edible species of insects have been a source of food for hundreds of years in more than 100 countries. For example, in central Africa up to 50% of dietary protein has come from insects, with their market value higher than many alternative sources of animal protein.

They also have significantly lower environmental footprints than animal protein since they emit fewer greenhouse gases, require less feed and can be raised on leftovers alone.

However, Darja Dobermann, a Doctoral Researcher in Entomophagy at the University of Nottingham and Rothamsted Research, questioned how these benefits can be achieved effectively.

"Insects present a nutritional opportunity, but it is unclear how their nutritional quality is influenced by what they are fed.

"In ideal conditions, insects have a smaller environmental impact than more traditional Western forms of animal protein; less known is how to scale up insect production while maintaining these environmental benefits.

"Studies overall show that insects could make valuable economic and nutritional contributions to the food or feed systems, but there are no clear regulations in place to bring insects into such supply systems without them turning into a more expensive version of poultry for food, or soya for feed," said Dobermann.

The paper suggested that further research is needed in order to understand how to manage the nutritional value of insects, establish clear processing and storage methodology, define rearing practices and implement food and feed safety regulations. Also, in order to justify the effort of catching them, insects need to be large enough and easy to locate, ideally in predictably large quantities.

They can be consumed as raw, fried, boiled, roasted or ground food. Popular species for consumption include beetles (Coleoptera, 31%); caterpillars (Lepidoptera, 18%); bees, wasps and ants (Hymenoptera, 14%); grasshoppers, locusts and crickets (Orthoptera, 13%); cicadas, leafhoppers, planthoppers, scale insects and true bugs (Hemiptera, 10%); termites (Isoptera, 3%); dragonflies (Odonata, 3%); and flies (Diptera, 2%).

While their nutritional value has been widely researched, inserting them into Western culture could prove to be difficult. The problem remains of ensuring insects are a sound economic, nutritional and sustainable protein alternative, and changing human perceptions of them.

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