Eating Bugs and the Future of Nutrition

fried mealworms at street food market
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In Western societies, the overwhelming majority regards eating insects as taboo. However, from a historical and global perspective, the practice is far from unusual. Human Paleolithic ancestors were snacking on insects before fruits and vegetables were cultivated to be staples in their diet. Today, people throughout the world continue the tradition of entomophagy, the technical term for chowing down on bugs.

How to Erase Bugs’ Repellant Reputation

One of the best reasons we should change our feelings about eating bugs is their capability in alleviating nutrition deficiencies. Malnutrition remains a worldly concern, both in developed and developing countries. But bugs are potentially inexpensive and efficient protein-packed food sources that we swat away on a daily basis.

There are an estimated 1,900 known edible insects, but reliable data on the nutrition content of each insect isn’t easy to find. Variations occur among different species, within the same species depending on the insects’ stage of life, and based on the environment where they grew. Thankfully, as consumption grows in popularity, new resources are rolling out. In 2013, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations developed an ongoing compilation of the nutritional value of insects.

A 3½-ounce serving of Thailand’s beloved giant water beetle contains an estimated 20 grams of protein, roughly equivalent to a standard serving of poultry. Zimbabwe’s mopane caterpillar snack provides an estimated 13 milligrams of iron. According the World Health Organization, iron deficiency anemia is considered the most common and widespread nutrition deficiency in the world.

Travelers to and expatriates from these regions can spread the word about entomophagy. Laura De Becker, a former South Africa resident and culinary adventurist, has enjoyed mopane caterpillars and touts their flavor. “Very similar to the taste of seaweed: crunchy, salty and delicious,” she says. “The perfect snack for long bus rides!”

Then there are the tried-and-true favorites being rediscovered around the world. For instance, escamoles are the edible larvae and pupae of ants, and have been consumed in Mexico since the time of the Aztecs. Their flavor is commonly described as buttery and nutty, and when pan-fried have a crunchy texture similar to pine nuts. Today, they are being mixed into tacos, added to sauces, and served alongside tortillas and guacamole.

And that’s not all. Some Michelin-rated restaurants have begun incorporating mealworms and crickets into foie gras; adding locusts to stir-fried vegetables dishes; and even making insects the star of meal.

The Environmental Impact

Another reason to consider eating insects is the growing concern about the negative impact raising livestock has on the environment. Notable issues include the amount of food and water used to feed animals and concern about greenhouse gas emissions. The United States Environment Protection Agency places “agriculture, forestry and other land use” as the number two leading emitter of greenhouse gas emissions — just behind “electricity and heat production.”

By contrast, insects require far less space and water, and have a more efficient feed conversion. For example, it can take 10 kilograms of feed to produce 1 kilogram of beef, and only half of the cow can be eaten. However, 10 kilograms of feed can produce 9 kilograms of insects, and as much as 95 percent of the bug can be consumed.

Sure, you may not make the leap right away to grilling hearty mealworms at a summer barbecue, but perhaps insects will make their way to your plate in smaller, more subtle ways. For instance, sautéed ants can be blended into a sauce and smashed crickets can be used for seasoning. Like the fly that just won’t go away, the push for entomophagy is in full force Tweet this and will likely be on your radar — and your dinner plate — before you know it.

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Bethany Oxender
Bethany Oxender, MS, RDN, is a clinical dietitian based in Ann Arbor, MI, specializing in weight management. Follow her on Twitter or Instagram and read her blog, Bethany Grey.