Brooklyn Bugs 2017 featured fifteen edible insect experts and proponents speaking on a range of relevant topics. They represent a diversity of backgrounds, expertise, and involvement with the field. The following is the fifth in a series of topic-specific articles woven from the threads that ran through their individual talks. The Edible Insect Experts on… the reasons to eat insects.
A growing number of people are excited about the burgeoning edible insect industry. For those more familiar with the idea, that excitement is understandable. But for those new to the concept, there is an obvious question:
Why would people choose to eat insects?
There are a good number of answers that appeal across a broad spectrum of topics. For those who can step back from preconceived notions, the arguments in favor of incorporating insects into our diets form a compelling argument. So much so that this has been split into a two-part article.
“They’re extremely healthy,” started Ryan Goldin, co-founder of North America’s largest human-grade insect producer Entomo Farms. They are packed with “nutrients such as zinc, B12, iron, and copper.”
Foods often list their protein content as a single number, and in that regard, insects score highly with protein content between approximately 50 and 70% depending on the species. But there is a bit more to it. “[Crickets] contain all 9 essential amino acids” Goldin continued. Amino acids are the building blocks of protein and the human body requires twenty specific amino acids to survive. The body naturally produces several, but the remaining nine must come through diet. Those nine ‘essential amino acids’ aren’t a health buzzword so much as a list of critical components for human life.
It isn’t just what insects combine, it’s how they combine them. While they have a much higher protein content than more commonly considered forms of protein — like red meat and eggs — insects are missing something that those other items have in abundance. “They’re very high in protein in the absence of cholesterol,” Juan Manuel Gutierrez, co-founder of Merci Mercado explained, speaking about chapulines, a close relative of the cricket. “How many sources of protein do you have… that can bring that specific combination?”
Gutierrez noted that “every insect out there is different.” But these nutritional benefits aren’t exclusive to crickets and chapulines. Lou Sorkin of the New York Entomological Society encouraged people to look at the overall picture. “There’s [2000 or so species of] insects that are eaten throughout the world. … And there’s different nutritional values for different insects.”
While the specific iron content or protein levels might vary from species to species, insects across the board are packed with nutritional goodness in a dense, little package.
Lee Cadesky, co-founder of C-Fu Foods, highlighted a few more wins for the cricket, the most commonly consumed insect in North America. “It can contain omega-3 fatty acids,” which are important for normal metabolism. The exoskeleton is made of a prebiotic fiber called chitin which helps maintain a healthy gut. And a cricket is “virtually carbohydrate free.” On top of all of that, he highlighted one of the add-on benefits, a multiplying effect in essence. “Bioavailable iron and B-12.”
Goldin explained in a little bit more detail. “What we’re finding as well is the bio-availability — our body’s ability to absorb all of these proteins — is extremely high as opposed to other plant based nutrients.” So not only are so many nutrients present in insects, the human body doesn’t have to work as hard to process them. They are higher quality fuel that our bodies use more efficiently.
Goldin offered a teaser of what research might one day show. “There’s some very anecdotal evidence to show that people who eat insects actually live a much healthier lifestyle.”
No wonder insects have a long history as part of our diets.
The high concentrations of nutrients are convenient in general. But there are additional benefits when looking at parts of the world facing food scarcity issues.
“If you want to talk about food insecurity and malnutrition,” Cadesky pointed out, “iron deficiency affects something like 4 in 5 women… Vitamin A deficiency when you’re young will make you blind… An iron and B-12 deficiency will make you slothful, tired, and ineffective. And the fact is these disproportionally affect people who are already the worst off.”
Fighting a food crisis isn’t just a matter of quantity, it is a matter of quality as well. Food that is dense with bioavailable nutrients is the best tool in these situations. It’s cheaper to transport. It’s easier to distribute. And in the case of insects, people in the affected communities might be able to grow the solution to their problems. This is the working principle behind several non-profits including Farms For Orphans, MealFlour, and MIGHTi.
As a method of “fortify[ing] the diet, especially early on, with things that have these [vitamins],” explained Cadesky, insects are a wonderful answer.
With all the talk about the many great things that are in these little packages, one speaker called out what is absent.
“I love shrimp,” Gutierrez proclaimed. But they are bottom-feeders, eating whatever sinks in the water, be that plant material or animal waste. He painted a picture of the crustacean far removed from the image presented on packaging, then presented a more appetizing alternative. “That’s very unlikely to happen with the grasshoppers. They are in agricultural fields, in the forest, in the mountains. And they are captured in the wilderness. They feed on leaves, on water.”
These are just some of the reasons behind the idea of eating insects. Part 2 is here.