We’ve swatted them, squashed them, dissected and, perhaps, even accidentally swallowed them, but very few of us have salivated over a platter of grubs or a box of Belgian chocolates topped with gold-plated crickets (apparently, a delicacy). Food experts say we should.
Experts at the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organisation’s (FAO) suggest it’s time we got over our squeamishness for insects and started snacking on beetles, caterpillars and the more than 1,900 other species that are part of traditional diets of at least 2 billion people, mostly in East Asia, Africa and parts of Latin America.
The rising cost of animal protein, food and feed insecurity, environmental pressures and population growth has added to the pressure to find alternative solutions to conventional livestock and feed sources, and eating insects — entomophagy — is the cheapest and most environment-friendly source of a nutritious meal, according to the FAO.
There’s a reason why insects are a part of traditional diets in many countries. Apart from protein, they have loads in healthy fat, calcium, iron and zinc. Just 100 gm of red ants have 14 gm of protein (more than an egg, which has 6 gm), nearly 48 gm of calcium, along with iron and other nutrients. And you get all that in less than 100 calories. Another example is mealworm, which has more heart-healthy unsaturated omega-3 and six fatty acids than fish, which is the best conventional source for these healthy oils.
Then there are other benefits. Insect-rearing is not a land-based activity and does not require land-clearing to expand production. Also, it is a low-tech, low-capital investment option for poor and marginalised farmers. Harvesting insects also raises fewer greenhouse gases than most livestock. Methane, for instance, is produced by only a few insect groups, such as termites and cockroaches, while ammonia emissions are also far lower than those linked to conventional livestock, such as pigs.
Because they are cold-blooded, insects are more efficient than conventional livestock at converting feed into protein. Crickets, for example, need 12 times less feed than cattle, four times less feed than sheep, and half as much feed as pigs and broiler chickens to produce the same amount of protein. They require only 2 kg of feed for every 1 kg of bodyweight gain. They can be fed on organic waste and are low-maintenance. Compared with mammals and birds, insects may also pose less risk of transmitting zoonotic infections to humans, livestock and wildlife. And the other uses — pollination in plant reproduction, improving soil fertility through waste bioconversion, and natural biocontrolling for harmful pest species — will remain.
Globally, the most commonly consumed insects are beetles (Coleoptera, 31%), caterpillars (Lepidoptera, 18%) and bees, wasps and ants (Hymenoptera, 14 %), followed by grasshoppers, locusts and crickets (Orthoptera, 13%), cicadas, plant-hoppers, scale insects and true bugs (Hemiptera, 10%), termites (Isoptera, 3%), dragonflies (Odonata, 3 %), flies (Diptera, 2%) and others (5%), reports the FAO’s study ‘Edible insects: future prospects for food and feed security’.
Now FAO’s grand plan is to change popular perception of insects being regarded as famine food and move them out of the niche novelty snacks market to mainstream diets. I don’t quite see beetle larvae — eaten by tribes in Africa and Australia as part of their subsistence diets — or crispy-fried locusts enjoyed in Thailand and Vietnam become a part of home-cooked meals in India, and perhaps a more acceptable option would be to market capsules, granular or paste forms of insect proteins, fats, minerals and vitamins. This would also take care of microbial safety, toxicity, palatability and the presence of inorganic compounds.
From what I’ve heard, ants are sweet with a nutty texture, stinkbugs have an apple flavour, and treeworm have a tinge of pork rinds. I strongly suggest foodies at least give it a go.
If nothing else, it would make conversations about what they had for dinner a little more palatable for the rest of us.