Will insects be the next big thing for foodies?
Published June 06, 2013
A recent report by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization finds that entomophagy, the practice of eating insects (and arachnids and myriapods), is a healthy and sustainable answer to mounting worldwide nutrition and environmental challenges. "Due to the rising cost of animal protein, food and feed insecurity, environmental pressures, population growth, and increasing demand for protein among the middle classes...alternative solutions to conventional livestock and feed sources urgently need to be found," states the report. Edible insects may offer at least a partial solution.
If this sounds like a Malthusian dystopia story, reconsider. Insects are arthropods, like lobster or shrimp. "So popping a big juicy beetle, cricket, or cicada into your mouth is only a step away," says entomologist Jenna Jadin.
Bugs are also nutritious. How nutritious? Interestingly, this is a methodologically difficult question to answer. Insect diets, even within the same species, vary based on where they live, and the nutrient composition of an individual insect varies throughout the metamorphic stages of its life. However, studies put most edible insects about on par with other animal protein sources, explains the FAO report.
Furthermore, insect protein profiles can efficiently supplement diets lacking in specific amino acids. For example, according to the FAO,
"In the Democratic Republic of the Congo...lysine-rich caterpillars complement lysine-poor staple proteins. Likewise, people in Papua New Guinea eat tubers that are poor in lysine and leucine, but compensate for this nutritional gap by eating palm weevil larvae. The tubers provide tryptophan and aromatic amino acids, which are limited in palm weevils."
In this post for The Atlantic, James Hamblin questions the safety of eating insects, pointing out the possibility of allergic reactions. This is a fair point, especially worth pausing over if you have an allergy to seafood or other arthropods, such as shellfish. The populations most at risk for developing insect allergies are, somewhat ironically, entomologists and insect cultivators, who may develop allergic sensitivity through long-term exposure. (If you've worked in a lab with rats, you may have noticed and lamented a rodent version of this phenomenon.) However, according to the FAO, "for the great majority of people...eating and/or exposure to insects do not pose significant risk of causing allergenic reactions." Moreover, there is some evidence that chitin, the principal component of insect exoskeletons, might boost the immune system and reduce allergic responses.
If you're still not convinced, you may be either chagrined or reconciled to know that you're eating bugs already anyway. According to a slightly cringe-inducing Scientific American post by Layla Eplett,
"The Food and Drug Administration permits a certain amount of insects in food products because it's practically impossible to keep them completely out. The Food Defect Action Levels outlines the permissible amount of bugs (and other natural contaminants) allowed in food. According to guidelines, pasta may contain an average of 225 insect fragments or more per 225 grams; a cup of raisins can have 33 fruit fly eggs and still make its way to shelves—it's 34 or more that are unacceptable. While these levels represent limits and the actual amount consumed is probably lower, on average an individual probably ingests about one to two pounds of flies, maggots and other bugs each year without even knowing it."
So, you might as well embrace it?
Once you get past feeling squeamish, the subject opens up an array of interesting questions. How would edible insects be cultivated? What would be the ecological ramifications? How would international food insect standards be regulated? To learn more, join us on June 26, when American Museum of Natural History entomologist Louis Sorkin will "dish" on the topic of entomophagy. Insect snacks will be provided!
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