Is it Time to Start Eating Insects?

With global food resources struggling to keep up with the world's rising population, it might be time to start looking at alternative sources.
With global food resources struggling to keep up with the world's rising population, it might be time to start looking at alternative sources. Thinkstock

It might be time to address our nation’s bug problem. 

Estimates say that insects form a part of the traditional diets of at least 2 billion people, according to a study conducted by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Yet, here in Western countries, bugs continue to carry a certain negative stigma, as shown in our modern culture and mainstream media. Picture the scene in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom where Willie sarcastically responds, “I had bugs for lunch,” while witnessing a crawly dinner scene in the Pankot Palace. That apprehension is rooted more in misguided methodology than real facts or personal experience.

Getting past this “ick” factor may turn out to be vital for our global food system. That same U.N. study, released in 2013, suggested that the world’s population will reach 9 billion by 2050. There are currently some 1,900 known edible insects species on earth, and likely more when you consider there could be as many as 300 pounds of insects for every pound of humans, as claimed in an article in The New York Times. Insects comprise more than 75 percent of known animal species. There are somewhere around a million ants for each of us!

Meanwhile, thanks to the influence of our culture on other parts of the world, animal-protein-centric diets are becoming more and more prevalent. And, from a sustainability perspective, this production is taxing the resources of land and water, and contributing significantly to greenhouse gases. It is no longer planet–friendly on the scale that we do it today. So when you start to look at the big picture, it appears our resources will eventually become scarce. As a solution, many people have positioned the insect as one alternative to our common animal protein sources.

Before you wave the idea away, the reality is that Americans, without realizing it, are consuming 2 to 3 pounds of insects a year. It’s something the FDA openly acknowledges. In its published Defect Levels Handbook, it lists “maximum levels of natural or unavoidable defects in foods for human use that present no health hazard.” Among these “defects” are insects and insect fragments. For example, ground paprika is noted at an “average of more than 75 insect fragments per 25 grams” for its action level. But, clearly, to make any real impact on our food system, the consumption of insects, known as entomophagy, will need to change in scale. 

In addition to the possible sustainability benefits, insects are healthy. The Entomological Society of America explains that insects generally contain more protein and are lower in fat than traditional meats. They also have a feed conversion efficiency that’s much higher (how much feed is needed to produce a 1 kg increase in weight). Insects are more efficient by a factor of 2:1 for chicken, 4:1 for pork, and as much as 12:1 for beef. In the case of crickets, 100 grams equal 121 calories, 12.9 grams of protein, and 5.5 grams of fat. Ground beef, on the flip side, has 23.5 grams of protein, but 288.2 calories and 21.2 grams of fat. Insects also save huge amounts of energy since they’re exothermic and don’t rely on their bodies to heat themselves up. As this movement grows, it’s going to be crucial to see how our governing bodies handle the possible farming and regulation of insects. Even if we raise them for feed purposes, how we do so will either enhance or distort the many benefits. However, as the world’s population booms, it’s time we consider alternatives in our global food system.

Darryl Mosher is an assistant professor in Culinary Arts at The Culinary Institute of America. Mosher teaches a freshman-level Product Knowledge course and the Sustainable Food Systems class in the Applied Food Studies bachelor's program.

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