Fancy some termites with your vegies for dinner? They taste rather minty, apparently. Or how about some grasshoppers – the Mexicans enjoy them roasted in chilli and garlic. In China you could try some fishy-tasting scorpions, or Cambodians might try and tempt you with fried tarantulas.
Many cultures have been eating bugs for centuries – including Indigenous Australians with delicacies like witchety grubs. Now, insects’ appeal as a cheap, nutritious and environmentally friendly food source is capturing attention as a potential solution for food security and sustainable agriculture.
By the year 2050 it’s estimated the world’s population will reach 9 billion people. To feed this growing population, current food production will need to nearly double.
But about one billion people around the world are hungry now. And food production is already unsustainable in the face of its ecological impact, climate change, land scarcity, overfished oceans and water shortages.
For this reason, leading organisations including the World Bank, United Nations and EAT Lancet Consortium are calling for radical overhauls of current agricultural and dietary practices.
They say multilevel solutions are needed that embrace and support small scale farmers, biodiversity and local knowledge. This includes widespread agreement that we need to eat more plant food and substantially less livestock for planetary and human health.
Insects rival conventional meat sources for their protein content, while putting significantly less strain on the environment.
Gram for gram, farming insect protein compared to beef needs 8 to 14 times less land, 5 times less water, and produces 6 to 13 times fewer greenhouse gas emissions.
Packed with amino acids, crawly critters are a high-quality protein source. They also deliver other nutrients including healthy fats, minerals such as iron, zinc, potassium and selenium, and vitamins including the B group.
Unlike animal food sources, insects contain fibre – mostly from the chitin in their exoskeleton, making them a good source of prebiotics.
In support, a study from the University of Wisconsin-Madison found that people who ate cricket powder in their breakfast every day for two weeks showed increased abundance of the beneficial bacteria Bifidobacterium animalis in their gut compared to controls who consumed the same breakfast without crickets.
But there are issues with foraging insects from nature for food; for instance, Australian honey ants and wood grubs are now threatened due to overexploitation by indigenous people for restaurants and ecotourism.
For this reason, insect farms are growing in popularity for animal feed or additives to human food. But they still need to overcome the “yuck factor” and pass regulatory tests for food safety.
That hasn’t stopped companies from producing insect-based products, for instance foods enriched from cricket protein seem to be growing in popularity – including cricket protein powder, organic roasted crickets and cricket energy bars.
Don’t fear. For vegans and vegetarians – and people who just can’t stomach the thought of eating insects – there are plenty of other nutritious, plant sources of protein including nuts, legumes, lentils, seeds, quinoa, and even hemp.