A Bug Buffet?

By Regina Malczewski

Entomophagy is practiced by over two billion people worldwide — and no, it’s not an internet trend — it’s  bug-eating! Using insects for food is common in tropical places where bugs or their larvae (immature forms) are large; some larvae can be 5½ inches (14 cm) long. The 1,900 species that are eaten are considered tasty by those who consume them. About one-third of the insects that people eat are beetles, followed in popularity by butterflies or moths (as caterpillars), bees, wasps, and ants. 

As the world population grows (it will reach between 9 and 10 billion people by 2050), and with over one billion people currently going hungry worldwide, we need to consider new food sources for the future. 

Eating insects is preferable to eating cattle, for several reasons. They cause less environmental damage, because forests aren’t cut down to raise them, and they don’t give off greenhouse gases. They reproduce and develop much faster. And they convert the food they eat into edible tissue five times more efficiently. They can also be grown on waste and are less likely than Western food sources to pass on diseases to people.

But are insects good for you to eat? Their nutritional value depends on their developmental stage, their habitat, and their diet — but some (like mealworms) have the same protein, vitamin, and mineral content as fish or meat. Termites are high in fat, but their protein content is higher than beef. In addition, bugs don’t have to be eaten whole. In Africa, you can snack on locust legs that have been crushed and mixed with peanut butter and salt — yum! Most bugs are prepared by boiling or frying. Crickets can be roasted and ground to make a protein powder. Mixed with starches from cassava or coconuts, cricket flour can increase the protein content of baked goods.

Insects are not yet grown broadly for food, though. Not enough research has been done to decide what kinds of insects would be best, and which would be most economical to produce for consumption. Besides that, insects, like other food sources, are being affected by pollution, loss of habitat, and climate change. 

Before you turn up your nose at the thought of eating insects, you should know that you already do! The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) allows a certain amount of contamination in the food we eat. A one-ounce box of raisins in your lunch, on average, contains four fruit fly eggs and one whole insect! It’s estimated that Americans eat about two pounds of bugs per year in foods like spinach, broccoli, rice, and pasta.

Insects have been feeding people for thousands of years, and may become more important in our diets as time goes on. You might even see grasshoppers or beetles on the menu at your favorite restaurant in the near future. Bon appetit!

Regina Malczewski, Ph.D. is a retired biochemist who worked at Dow Corning Corporation in Midland, MI.