By: Glenn Cardwell, Dietitian
Entomophagy is the practice of eating insects as a food source. Over 1000 species of insects are eaten around the world by traditional human societies in Africa, the Americas and Australasia. The Food and Agricultural Organisation estimated that two billion of the world's population regularly dine on insects.
When we hear the expression hunter-gatherer we immediately think of meat, seafood, vegetables, fruits, berries, seeds and nuts. Add insects to that list. Insects are comparable to animal foods in their nutritional value. There are 14,000 year-old paintings on cave walls in Spain illustrating honey gathering and termite collection.
You might head to Kenya or South Africa to see the big five. The insect world has a Big Five too, but these all played a role in our survival. The Big Five that we and other primates have enjoyed through evolution are:
1. Coleoptera (beetles)
2. Hymenoptera (ants, bees, wasps - include honey)
3. Isoptera (termites)
4. Lepidoptera (butterflies, moths - think also caterpillars)
5. Orthoptera (locusts, crickets)
Although we have eaten flies and aphids, the Big Five are usually easier to catch or appear periodically in vast numbers, such as moths, caterpillars and locusts. A good Australian example is the Bogong moth, popular with traditional Aboriginals of southern east coast. Many bees do sting, but the honey pot pay-off has made it worthwhile for both humans and chimpanzees.
Crickets tickle when they go down the throat
I know, because I enjoyed them at a cricket farm in Hoi An, in central Vietnam, recently (see pic). The crickets were raised by a three-war veteran and his son. His daughter individually de-gutted the crickets, taking them up to premium quality. Fried in oil and garlic they made a crunchy and tasty snack. You just have to first skip through that psychological checkpoint many of us have.
Entomophagy tends to include non-insects like arachnids (eg tarantulas) and myriapods (eg centipedes). Yeah, I know, I think it would take more than a psychological warm-up to send them down my gullet.
Delicious and nutritious
Insects have been analysed for their nutrient content. On average, cockroaches are 57% protein and 30% fat based on a dry weight, a similar protein and fat content to other insects such as flies (50% protein; 23% fat), ants (47%; 25%), caterpillars (45%; 28%) and crickets (61%; 13%), according to a review of 236 edible insects (Rumpold 2013).
Their protein provides all the essential amino acids needed for humans, while the fat is, in very general terms, one third saturated fats, and two thirds a mix of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids. A decent meal of insects could give you 2100 kJs/500 Cals, which is pretty good as a food source when living off the land.
Insects are about 10% fibre, mainly in the form of chitin, suspected to help control blood cholesterol. Chitin gives insects their "crunchiness" - that's their exoskeleton. They are also an excellent source of essential minerals like iron and zinc, along with B vitamins.
What does it all mean?
As westernised humans overcome their food prejudices and continue to explore new foods and food trends there is a good chance that you will have the opportunity to nibble on insects. Enjoy the experience. In tough times there is no doubt that many people around the globe will be relying on insect nutrition because this food source reproduces rapidly, efficiently converts feed to growth, take little space and aren't fussy eaters.
Technically insects belong in the animal kingdom, so I wonder if insects will be popular with vegetarians?
If this topic fascinates you, and you have a spare 16 minutes, watch Marcel Dicke explain Why we can eat insects here. He claims that you are already eating 500 grams (18 oz) of insects 'by accident' every year. Love his T-shirt. And the chocolatier at the end.
1. Rumpold BA, Schlüter OK. Nutritional composition and safety aspects of edible insects. Molecular Nutrition & Food Research 2013; 57: 802-823
2. McGrew WC. The 'other faunivory' revisited: Insectivory in human and non-human primates and the evolution of human diet. Journal of Human Evolution 2014
3. FAO Nutritional Value of Insects for Human Consumption. This excellent, easy to read, review is here. Read this and you will have a new appreciation for insects as food (and the photos are great too).
Glenn is an Accredited Practising Dietitian with 30 years in clinical and public health nutrition, including 10 years as consultant dietitian to the National Heart Foundation, five years at the Children's Hospital in Sydney and was a major player in establishing the WA School Canteen Association in 1994. He began his nutrition consultancy company, Nutrition Impact, in 1996. Go to www.glenncardwell.com