If you told me a couple of years ago that I would be writing about edible insects, I probably would have thought you were mad. But here I am, deep-diving into entomophagy; one of the hottest topics in nutrition.
Edible insects, particularly crickets, are popping up in everything from protein bars to cookies. Exo and Bitty are two of the most notable insect purveyors, offering cricket-laced chips, cookies, flour and protein bars.
My first dip into entomophagy was at Don Bugito at the Ferry Terminal Farmers Markets in San Francisco. Don Bugito offers several varieties of crickets and worms including chocolate, chili-lime and toffee. I went for one of the safer options--chocolate covered crickets. The squishy, segmented worm bodies looked like they were better suited to a bug-eating veteran than a first-timer. Here's my run down on eating creepy crawlies:
The flavor was more neutral than I expected--slightly nutty but nothing severe. Crickets seem to take on the flavors that they’re paired with rather than having a strong flavor of their own. Admittedly, I tasted mostly chocolate and salt when I bit into each little critter.
When I imagined myself eating a cricket, I had visions of wing bits getting stuck in my teeth, and bug innards squirting into my mouth. Much to my surprise, neither of these things happened. The crickets were less buggy and more crunchy than I expected-- not quite a potato chip but perhaps a notch below. There was no oozy thorax, just a delicate crunch similar to chewing on a kernel of popcorn.
The nutrition value of insects varies depending on the species, maturity, and type of feed provided to the creepy crawly in question. Some types of grasshoppers (like Chapulines eaten in Mexico) provide the same amount of protein as an equivalent amount of meat/poultry, whereas crickets provides roughly half, with 13g per 100g serving. The caveat is that getting down 100g of cricket exoskeleton, whether it’s in whole form or a powder, is quite difficult for an amateur bug-eater .
Calories and Other Nutrients
Energy content varies widely from 1200 kcal per 100g for the (raw) green weaver ant in Australia to 90 kcal per 100g for grasshoppers in Thailand . Most of those Calories come from fat and protein, rather than carbohydrate.
Insects are a rich source of heart-healthy mono- and polyunsaturated fats, and low in saturated fat. Some insects such as saturniid caterpillar and the edible grasshopper, even contain alpha linolenic acid; an omega-3 fat also found in flaxseeds and walnuts, and touted for being anti-inflammatory.
Many six-legged creatures provide more iron and zinc than a comparable amount of beef. Again, the issue is that insects are typically consumed in much smaller quantities, and the bioavailability of these nutrients is somewhat unknown. In addition, there is some suggestion that those allergic to shellfish may also react to insects too, but this speculative at this stage.
A Note on Sustainability
This is where bugs really shine. Research to date suggests that our six-legged friends have a leg-up on meat and poultry when it comes to environmental impact. Crickets, for example, require far less feed than animals and are two times more efficient than chicken, and 12 times more efficient than cows at converting feed into edible meat .
Furthermore, small laboratory studies show that insects produce roughly 100 times less greenhouse gases and 10 times less ammonia than pigs and beef . This, of course, needs to be confirmed by larger trials but evidence suggests that creepy crawlies may be a sustainable, eco-friendly protein choice. Insects have an important role in many ecosystems, and the impacts of farming insects on the natural environment also requires further exploration.
I am not sure if I will be replacing my once-a-week lean steak with a handful of edible insects anytime soon. I have lingering questions about bugs being vectors of disease and allergens that need to be resolved before I could serve them up on my own plate or recommend them to a client. Moreover, the FDA is yet to add insects to their ‘Generally regarded as safe’ list. With that being said, my little entomophagical adventure did get my thinking about making both healthy and sustainable food choices. Meatless Monday is not such a bad thing.
 Edible insects: future prospects for food and feed security. A. van Huis, J. Van Itterbeeck, H. Klunder, E. Mertens, A. Halloran, G. Muir and P. Vantomme FAO Forestry Paper No. 171. 2013. FAO, Rome. Free download at http://www.fao.org/docrep/018/i3253e/i3253e00.htm