The practice of eating squirming, flying, crunchy insects is called entomophagy. It may sound extreme, but it's been practiced for millennia.1 Some are harvested in the wild and others are farmed. A report from the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization identified 1,900 edible insects in April 2012 and reported that 2 billion people regularly eat them.2

The global population is now 7.7 billion,3 which means the 2 billion eating insects represents 25% of the world. The practice of eating insects is common in many tropical countries where some species grow to large sizes and are easy to harvest year-round.

While some promote farming and harvesting insects as it may be environmentally friendly and healthy, in tropical areas many prefer insects just because they taste good.4 A recent study from the University of Teramo in Italy5 analyzed the water-soluble extracts from insects and found some had more antioxidants than orange juice.6

Antioxidant capacity in grasshoppers higher than OJ

The study was focused on an analysis of composite nutritional content from 12 types of insects and two types of invertebrates sold commercially.7 They found among the total number of insects consumed in the world, some of the top groups included beetles, African caterpillars and bees, wasps and ants. These groups represented 31%, 18% and 14% of the total number eaten.

Driven by new interest in eating insects and invertebrates, the researchers8 aimed to compare the antioxidant ability of extracts among edible insects representing different species and eating habits.

The insects were first ground and then defatted with a hexane wash. The lipid free solids were air-dried in order to remove the hexane and then used to extract water soluble substances. The ability of the extract to scavenge free radicals was measured as Trolox Equivalent Antioxidant Capacity (TEAC) and calculated for water soluble and lipid soluble extracts.9

Once analyses and measurements were completed, the researchers10 found the water-soluble substances from grasshoppers, silkworms and crickets had the highest antioxidant capacity — five times higher than fresh orange juice.

The next group with antioxidant activity included African caterpillars, mealworms and mini crickets, along with Buffalo worms and black ants. From all 12 of the insects used in the extraction, only the evening cicada, giant water bug, Thai zebra tarantula and black scorpion had a lower antioxidant capacity than juice.11 Author Mauro Serafini, Ph.D., commented on the results:12

"At least two billion people — a quarter of the world's population — regularly eat insects. The rest of us will need a bit more encouragement. Edible insects are an excellent source of protein, polyunsaturated fatty acids, minerals, vitamins and fibre.

But until now, nobody had compared them with classical functional foods such as olive oil or orange juice in terms of antioxidant activity. In the future, we might also adapt dietary regimens for insect rearing in order to increase their antioxidant content for animal or human consumption."

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Nutritional power found in bugs

Oxidative stress is what happens when the oxidants and antioxidants in your body are out of balance with each other. A continuous release of reactive oxygen species production increases oxidative stress and damage at the cellular level. Antioxidants play a significant role in the battle to prevent or slow this damage.13

The body produces some antioxidants and gets others from the foods we eat. Oxidative stress has been associated with many ailments such as heart disease, cancer, immune deficiency and Parkinson's disease among others.14

Antioxidants help the body by neutralizing free radicals. Free radicals are the unwanted leftovers in our body as it processes its various inputs, such as food and environmental elements. Researchers have identified flavonoids, catechins, phytoestrogens and phytonutrients as performing antioxidant activities.15

Vegetables and fruit are full of antioxidants, and those eating a diet high in vegetables and fruit enjoy a lower risk of several diseases.16 The discovery of edible bugs as a source of antioxidants may help provide a sustainable base of nutrients for consumption in the near future.

Crickets offer more benefits than just antioxidants. In one study,17 they were shown to provide a complex array of proteins and a unique fiber to help balance the microbiota in your intestines. When an imbalance occurs, it's linked with metabolic issues, neuropsychiatric disorders and depression,18 as well as allergies19 and asthma.20

Your diet has more influence over your health than many may give it credit for. The polysaccharide exoskeleton of most arthropods contain chitin, which is different from the fiber found in fruits and vegetables. One study,21 carried out at the University of Wisconsin, may explain how dietary fibers that the body does not absorb are a prominent food and energy source for developing gut health.

Multiple cultures routinely eat insects

Although Americans are quick to eat hotdogs made of entrails, processed foods full of unknown chemicals and even slimy oysters, most are loathed to try a crunchy insect or slippery worm. One team of researchers,22 recognizing the major obstacle to increasing insect consumption for food is a rejection by most of the world's population, set about to understand the basis for this aversion.

Using an online sample of adults living in the U.S. and India, they studied attitudes toward food. They found that while the majority of Americans and Indians were willing to consider some form of insect as food, both groups reacted with disgust at the idea of eating them.

Of the seven types of insects offered as edible, both found ants to be the most palatable. Members of the groups said they may be willing to eat small amounts of insect flour. However, most were completely opposed to eating a whole insect.23 This is different in other parts of the world, where insects are routinely eaten and enjoyed.

They are part of the typical daily diet in Asia.24 The New York Times25 reported that the size and low biodiversity of insects that developed in Europe may have contributed to a lack of interest in eating them. Only 2% of the world's edible insects grow in Europe, and they don't grow as large as their counterparts in the tropics.

Europeans who settled North America brought with them their cultural aversion to eating insects, which most in the Western World consider dirty and carriers of disease.26 In a review of edible insects27 as a potential future for human food, researchers point out that animals provide humans with meat, but also warmth, leather, a means of transport and milk products.

In Western countries, the utility of these animals may have increased their value for food over insects. David Mela, Ph.D.,28 who has extensively researched and written about food choices, explained in a symposium on functionality of nutrients and behavior:29

"Human perceptions and selection of food are derived from the prevailing and momentary food, agro-economic and cultural environment, cognitive and biological characteristics of individuals, and the real and perceived intrinsic and extrinsic attributes of foods themselves.

The range of items typically chosen and consumed within a given population is largely determined by interaction of the external environmental context with guiding sets of implicit and explicit social and psychobiological 'rules'."

Do you take your bugs juiced or powdered?

In the study30 from the University of Wisconsin, researchers selected 20 volunteers to help with their investigation of the potential health benefits of cricket powder. Researchers found that while eating cricket powder, participants enjoyed an increase in metabolic enzymes associated with gut health. This was determined by analyzing blood and stool samples collected before and after the intervention.

While taking the cricket powder, researchers also found there was a higher ratio of beneficial gut bacterium such as bifidobacterium animalis,31 a microbiota strain linked to improved gastrointestinal function. It is also noted for its ability to reduce inflammation.

Chances are, you have sampled your first insect without knowing it. Insects are found everywhere: in the field when food is harvested and in manufacturing plants and facilities when it is processed and stored.

The amount of insects or insect parts that is allowed in your food is called the food defect level.32 The FDA established the maximum amount of what they call "natural or unavoidable defects in foods for human use that present no health hazard."33

In the FDA's handbook, they list the products, defect and allowable level of defect. The list is extensive, ranging from spices, chocolate and produce to canned goods and processed foods.34 For instance, ground allspice may have one or more rodent hairs and an average of 30 or more insect fragments for every 10 grams.

Chocolate may have an average of 60 or more insect fragments and one or more rodent hairs for every 100 grams. Noodle products may have an average of 225 insect fragments and 4.5 rodent hairs for every 225 grams of food, while tomato juice is allowed 10 or more fly eggs or two or more maggots for every 100 grams.35

Future food supply must be sustainable

In addition to having a short life cycle, raising and harvesting insects requires less land and environmental resources then raising meat.36 Compared to cattle, insects have a high reproductive rate and food conversion efficiency, which the Center for Invasive Species Research37 finds might be 20 times that of cattle.

National Geographic38 reported on the top edible groups, including beetles, butterflies, bees and grasshoppers. Even stink bugs made the top 10 insect group. They are said to taste similar to apples and provide iodine.

The New York Times39 reported that entrepreneurs have begun promoting insects as a good source of protein. The practice is ecologically sustainable and seems to appeal to environmentalists as well as those interested in improving health. A number of startups dedicated to entomophagy have raised millions of dollars in venture capital.

However, while these companies promote the use of insects in food, the products they're selling no longer look like insects. The New York Times reported40 that while our mind may understand the health benefits of eating insects, our culture and eyes may not have evolved. Those who champion entomophagy are working to smuggle the insects past those defenses by grinding them into a uniform powder in which the texture and flavor are lost.

Insects must be raised in a sustainable way if they are to become a successful part of a diet, and this is true of any food source.

When agricultural practices work with nature instead of against it, our food sources may be sustained and therefore flourish. For instance, when cattle are rotated across pastures instead of raised in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), their grazing cuts the blades of grass, which spurs new growth. Their trampling helps work manure into the soil, fertilizing it naturally.

This healthy soil then helps keep carbon dioxide underground and out of the atmosphere. Environmental devastation can be healed, and functional ecosystems may be rebuilt using this concept. While insects may provide a portion of the sustainable food supply, the ultimate goal should be the sustainable farming of every food source.