Edible Insects: The Good, The Bad And The Ugly

Should we all eat bugs? In this post you're going to learn what are the pros and cons of eating insects

Amy Gardner
A bug gun (Refference to the movie: "The good the Bad and the ugly")

So what do you know about edible insects?

“Insects edible?” you ask. “Maybe for some people. But not for me.”

It’s definitely hard to overcome our innate aversion to creepy crawly things. Even the idea of insects in the same cabinet that our food is in disgusts us.

Insects are repulsive. Squirmy. A sign of filth and uncleanliness. Why would anyone eat them?

A person eating a cricket

Well, turns out that 80% of the world’s population would disagree with you on that. [1] The inhabitants of most parts of Asia and Africa, and even South and Central America, have included insects as a staple of their diet for generations.

Despite this, relatively little is known about insects as a food source. We are aware of their nutritional value, and the requirements for raising them.

But are they really safe to eat? And can we get past the yuck factor?

Let’s explore the good, the bad, and the ugly when it comes to the world of edible insects.

The good

Eating bugs, as gross as it seems, benefits our bodies and our world in many ways.

Insects are a great source of nutrients

Fruits and Veggies

You may be surprised to learn that edible insects are really very good for you!

The protein content of an insect is 20-76% of dry matter, depending on the insect’s type and development stage [2].

For example, one 3.5 ounce portion of grasshopper typically contains between 14 and 28 grams of protein.

This translates to 25-60% of your recommended daily allowance...from just one small serving of food. [3]

The same size serving of red ants also yields about 14 grams of protein, as well as a whopping 71% of the recommended daily allowance of iron. Crickets, beetles and caterpillars are great sources of these nutrients as well.

Why does this matter?

First of all, protein is life. And that’s no exaggeration. [4]

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It’s the basic building block of every part of your body. Muscles, bones, and skin all count on protein to grow and to repair themselves.

That’s why athletes and bodybuilders go to any lengths possible to fill themselves with it. Shakes, vitamin supplements, and protein bars are popular ways to try to fill in the protein gap.

Protein paired with iron is a true “power couple.” These nutrients combine to form hemoglobin, which is needed to move oxygen to your blood cells. [5] Iron also builds your immune system, and protects your body from anemia.

Eating insect meat is resource efficient

Woman holding plant

As we saw above, protein is an essential nutrient for human survival. So the best use of the earth’s land, water, and other resources is the production of food that provides it.

Beef is generally considered an excellent source of protein and other valuable nutrients. But in fact, 100 grams of beef yields around the same amount of protein as crickets. [6]

Infographic: Insects vs Livestock
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Producing this mere 1 kg of beef also takes a toll on our resources. The process requires an average of about 15 liters of water, in addition to the water used to grow food for the cattle to eat. Raising the same amount of mealworms uses about 4 liters, a full 9 liters less than each kg of beef.

According to a 2006 report of the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the raising of livestock accounts for the use of 70% of agricultural land use worldwide. Insect farming requires a very small space in comparison.

Almost no greenhouse gas emission (GHG)

Nature

The raising of livestock produces methane gas, a major contributor to global warming/climate change. The effect of methane is estimated to be 25 times more harmful than carbon dioxide [7].

Nitrous oxide and ammonia are also released by cattle into our environment.

But raising insects produces between 10 and 80 times less methane gas than does the raising of cattle, and 8-12 times less ammonia.

Since we all have to breathe the same air, this is pretty good news for everyone.

Eating insects can help us secure food for upcoming generations

A bug with the shape of a lock

It’s no secret that a rapidly expanding population is straining the earth’s resources.

In 1800, the world population reached one billion. In a mere 130 years after that, this number doubled itself to reach 2 billion. And it has only picked up speed since then. The world population is estimated to reach 10 billion by 2055. [8]

Infographic: One person out of seven is hungry
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Feeding these burgeoning numbers of people poses a challenge even now. The Food Aid Foundation [9] estimates that one out of every seven people in the world are hungry, meaning they do not access to the nutritious food needed to live a healthy life.

Poor nutrition causes almost half the deaths worldwide of children under the age of five.

We are facing world hunger in spite of the fact that the earth presently produces more than enough food to feed everyone [10].

As the population continues to explode and supplies of available land and water diminish, the problem is only going to worsen. Some sources estimate that the world may no longer produce enough food for everyone as early as 2030, unless dramatic change happens.

The large-scale farming and eating of insects offers a ray of hope in this bleak prognosis.

Requiring very little land and water use, and providing so many of the nutrients needed for life, they may be our best chance to avoid this disaster.

On top of this, children are much more open towards the idea of eating bugs then we are.

Economy - Insect farming can provide a stable income

Dollar illustration

When it comes to producing insects for food, edible insects could level the playing field.

Farming insects does not require a lot of land or expensive machinery. Even the poorest segment of the population in our least developed countries can do it and make a profit.

Insect farming can also provide a stable income to established farmers, who can earn net incomes of between $5000-$10,000 a year in countries where the average gross income is about $5640 per year [11].

Empowering so many underprivileged members of the global economy is a huge societal benefit of the edible insect industry.

Benefits of edible insects

  • Rich in needed protein and iron
  • Less strain on land and water resources
  • A reduction of greenhouse gas emissions which contribute to climate change
  • A potential solution to world hunger and food insecurity
  • A stable income to farmers in developing countries

The bad

Even so, there are a few points to consider before embarking on a diet of grasshoppers, crickets and ants.

The possibility of allergens

Alergic person

Although insects have been consumed as food for generations in some parts of the world, there is still very little known about how they might affect our bodies.

It’s well known that food allergies are becoming an increasing problem. Eggs, shellfish, nuts, and milk, once considered so benign, are now common triggers for allergic reactions.

One study [12] found that insects have the same capacity to trigger allergic reactions as do crustaceans (like shrimp and lobster).

This makes sense when you consider that insects and crustaceans are both classified as arthropods, meaning they have an exoskeleton and segmented bodies.

So if you have a shellfish allergy, you may want to steer clear of cricket flour or roasted grasshoppers.

Bacteria

Let’s be honest; there are good reasons why we’ve been trying to keep bugs away from our food instead of eating them.

Many insects feed on decaying matter: rotting food, animal corpses, human waste which are full of bacteria. This is a common danger associated with wild caught insects.

Food Waste

What’s more, there is the potential for a small amount of microbial fauna and spore-bearing bacteria to find its way into farmed bugs that we use for food. The insects need to be bred in a clean environment.

Unfortunately, many insect farms in Asia don’t necessarily obey with the high hygienic standards.

It has also been found that insects can carry parasites which are harmful, even deadly [13].

In the early 1950s, it was found that a large number of people living in Malaysia had been infected by an intestinal “fluke,” or an infestation of harmful bacteria, which they had gotten from consuming dragon flies.

It appears that regulating the conditions in which bugs are raised would offset this problem.

But more research is needed before we know for certain how safe it is to introduce insects as a dietary staple.

Anti-nutrients

These are the dark twin of nutrients: substances that interfere with the body’s ability to absorb and use protein. They can compromise the nutritional value of many foods, especially those made from plants (like rice or flour). Some common anti-nutrients are phytic acid, tannins, and lectins.

The exoskeleton, or “chitin,” of an insect has been found to have small amounts of these anti-nutrients. But most studies have found these levels to be relatively low compared with what might be found in plant-based foods.

Luckily, it is not all so dark.

Although chitin reduces our bodies ability to absorb insect protein, there are many health benefits of eating chitin.

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We still don’t know much about the levels of anti-nutrient substances in insects. More research is needed to find out whether they are significant.

Pesticides

Very little research has been done on the use of pesticides in the raising of insects. One study [13] found low levels of certain harmful chemicals. These were no greater than what you would find in most animal-based foods. However, we can’t ignore the fact that the use of pesticides in producing edible insects is largely unregulated, and so using insects as a food source does carry a small amount of risk.

The risk is greater when insects are harvested in the wild as opposed to raised by an insect farmer. In both Thailand and Kuwait, widespread health problems have resulted in cases where dead insects were used for food after there had been attempts to “disinfest” agricultural areas through the use of pesticides [14].

Toxins

Do you know the difference between a mushroom and a toadstool?

In appearance, they are similar. Yet one is a delicious and healthy food source while the other is poisonous.

It’s the same with insects. Some knowledge of insects is necessary in order to know which ones are good for you and which ones might kill you.

Bees and certain kinds of ants carry toxins inside of them in order to ward off predators. Those same toxins can be dangerous if you eat them.

Some kinds of beetles carry a metabolic steroid which can result in growth retardation, infertility, or the masculinization of females if it is consumed too frequently. [14]

It’s important to note that most of the “cons” on this list present only a very small risk, no greater than the risk encountered in eating meats or grains. And most experts agree that the benefits are significant enough to outweigh them.

Main risks related to insect consumption

  • Allergens
  • Bacteria
  • Anti-nutrients
  • Pesticides
  • Toxins


In short, here are the main takeaways in regards to safety:

  1. Source your insects good.
  2. Never eat raw insects.
  3. Don’t eat just any kind of bugs, it might kill you
  4. Be cautious if you’re allergic to shellfish

And now...the ugly.

The ugly

Moth infestation in flour

In Western cultures, we have a natural aversion to bugs. Our skin crawls if we see flies crawling on a piece of meat or a mealworm infestation in our flour bin.

But in most countries of the world, bugs are routinely eaten and even enjoyed.

Falafel salad with mealorms
Crickster's Mealworm falafel salad

In Ghana, it’s common to snack on roasted termites. In southwest Brazil, queen ants are a popular delicacy.

But in Europe and North America, we are doing everything in our power to avoid eating these nasty insects.

Disgusted woman

Despite our best efforts, though, we have been consuming insects for a long time without knowing it.

The FDA Defect Levels Handbook [15] states that there are certain “natural and unavoidable defects” in foods which can be allowed without posing a threat to humans.

In any macaroni and cheese product, you may have as much as 225 insect fragments per each 225 grams. Frozen broccoli may contain an average of 60 aphids or mites per 100 grams. Imported olives, peanuts, and a variety of spices including ginger, allspice and black pepper all allow a certain amount of insect fragments.

In this context, any repulsion you feel towards eating insects seems a bit misplaced.

Not to mention, those who have tried edible insects, even those who were skeptical to begin with, report that the taste is not objectionable or unpleasant at all. Depending on the type of bug, they are variously reported to taste like nuts, mint, or even bacon.

Edible insects...

  • Are already a dietary staple In most countries
  • Have been allowed by the FDA to be present in certain foods
  • Don’t have an unpleasant taste

And when you think of all the good that you accomplish for your body, for the world, and for the environment, overcoming your cultural disgust seems like a small price to pay.

So the next time anyone offers you roasted mealworms or a cricket protein bar, go ahead and give it a try.

Roasted Mealworms
Crickster's Roasted Mealworms

You may be glad you did.

Now I would like to hear from you.

Would you like to start eating bugs or would you like to learn more?

Let me know what you think in the comments below, and I’ll give you a heads-up.

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