Headlines claiming “eating insects is the future of food” and asking “are edible insects the next superfood?” have been appearing in recent years. According to researchers at Wageningen University, some 2,000 edible species are known to exist and are eaten by an estimated quarter of the world’s population. However, insects are not traditionally part of Western diets.
Why the interest in eating insects?
Dietary choices not only impact on dividual health, but also have significant implications for the health of the planet. Our food system contributes significantly to climate change through greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions; and impacts negatively on ecosystems, including through deforestation, water use, overfishing, pollution and biodiversity loss. Traditional sources of protein, such as meat and dairy foods, are recognised as having a high environmental footprint.
So how can we meet the protein needs of a growing global population in a way that is affordable, healthy and good for the environment? Could insects be part of a more sustainable future?
Insects are reported to emit fewer greenhouse gases than cattle and require significantly less land and water for rearing. Part of their environmental benefit is their high feed conversion efficiency, meaning they convert feed to protein more efficiently than livestock animals. It would therefore seem that insects are a potential source of protein with a smaller impact on the environment than our currently consumed major sources.
Nutrient composition of insects
Nutrition data for insects is still limited and nutritional composition can vary widely according to species, diet, growing conditions and life stage. Gram for gram some insects may have similar energy contents and similar amounts (but not necessarily quality) of protein to meat and fish. Certain species may also be a good source of ‘healthy’ monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. Furthermore, most edible insects are reported to be good sources of iron, with some species boasting a higher content gram for gram than beef – although how much of the iron in insects is actually absorbed is not known.
A lack of insect-eating in our culture means that many of us may have never considered eating insects. This view of insects as inedible may be perpetuated in the media through TV shows such as ‘I’m A Celebrity…Get Me Out Of Here!’ Whilst globalisation is making us more willing to try new foods, and changing our tastes and palettes, for those that may have an aversion to eating whole insects consuming foods where insects are non-visible ingredients (e.g. used as ingredients within food products) could be more acceptable alternative.
Several forms of insect species are currently on sale in the UK, including: whole insects like crickets, powdered insect flours and products with insect flours incorporated, like biscuits or pasta. Regulations on insects as food are changing however; new European regulations coming into force in 2018 will classify both whole and partial insects as novel foods, meaning any products containing them sold within the European Union will require a rigorous safety assessment.
Cross-reactivity to insects has been noted in people with allergies to crustaceans (such as shrimp, lobster and crab). Reassurance may also be sought from regulators on the most appropriate and safe material for insects to be reared on, and on their microbiological safety to ensure they are fit for human consumption.
Insects as animal feed
Insects could also be used indirectly as feed for livestock and aquaculture, helping to reduce the amount of land and water currently used to grow animal feed crops. Finding new sources of animal feed may be critical for a sustainable future and may prove more acceptable to those not willing to eat insects themselves.
Legislation around the use of animal products (including insects) in feed is complex as historically the use of processed animal protein in feed has been prohibited. However, new regulations permit the use of insect proteins as fish feed; a significant first step towards the acceptance of insect feed for livestock.
While there are still significant barriers to the production and consumption of insects in the UK, they could potentially be an innovative part of the solution to help support future food chain sustainability. Insect burger anybody?