It’s the new health-trend that’s been taking the world by storm, and sneaking into corner shops near you. Insect protein is designed with the sustainability of the planet in mind, with the complex task of providing the population with their protein needs while clamping down on the pesky cows that have been wrecking the environment with their farts and using their fat to clog the pipes of their human overlords.
That’s how we arrived with cricket powder lining the shelves of health stores, and minced insect burgers being offered to schoolchildren across Wales.
In the words of the inventor of those termite burgers, which have apparently been well received by select pupils, insects are “exceptionally nutrient dense and sustainable to produce.”
Being cold-blooded, insects require less feed while still producing protein as high as 35 grams of protein per 100 grams of meat. One study suggested that farming insects uses up to 50-90% less land per kg of protein, 40-80% less feed, and produces less GHG emissions to boot.
This is where the lucky pupils of Pembrokeshire are getting a glimpse of the future, where insects return to their perch as a staple food source, much like they were for our chimp-like ancestors of 7 million years past.
For vegans, insect protein could then be a viable way to finally hit their protein requirements without having to sacrifice their ethics, since insects are tiny and thereby unlikely to feel pain.
The aforementioned VEXo burger also has 70-80% less saturated fat when compared against ground beef, which would be uniformly regarded as a good move by dieticians stuck in the curriculum of the 80s.
Vegans aside, the global population is projected to hit 9.7 billion by 2050, and there’s an urgent demand for more sustainable forms of food production.
But before we get carried away by the green surge, and usher in the era of caterpillar kebabs on the barbeque, it’s worth weighing up the offerings of the insect chalice. Because there are a few drawbacks to counter the promises.
The Insect Promise
On one hand, eating insects is nothing new for humanity. Lobsters, crabs, and crickets are all arthropods. Some of the apprehension against entomology, the eating of insects, is definitely down to cultural sensibilities. As it is, insects supplement the diets of approximately two billion people in various countries across the world.
Insects don’t just contain protein, but also come as a source of fiber in the form of their exoskeletons, chitin. They have your standard fare of micronutrients, like copper, iron, magnesium, and zinc. Some of those creatures even are high in fat, which I’ve previously flagged as the critical macronutrient. Caterpillars have as much as 15 grams of fat per 100 grams.
Then there’s the flexible nature of the little critters.
The Many Ways You Can Have Your Insect Fix
- Protein bars
- Pasta made from insect flour
- As its own dish
Insects haven’t quite caught on in the west, with 67% of people in a UK survey claiming that nothing could make them try insects. But head to a place like Thailand, and you’ll see silk worms and grasshoppers being served up as delicacies across market stalls. Often deep fried and disguised under chili sauces, since the buggy flavour rarely makes a good selling point.
So there’s definitely a demand for insects, and the bland taste can be alleviated by processing or the right recipe. Some of the misgivings people have against insectivory can be put down to the cultural perceptions of those foods, much like pork was consistently demonised across history for being the food of the poor, and organ meats have been since the second world war.
However, we still need to deal with the bad bits.
The Issues With Insectivory
While insects have to be placed a level above kidney beans as a protein source, there are plenty of issues with having insects do the heavy lifting in a diet.
Allergic reactions – The most obvious one is the cross-reactivity of insect proteins with crustacean proteins, creating a risk for those with shellfish allergies.
Microbial contamination – Insects carry plenty of pathogens, and while many of them don’t appear to cross over to humans, those insects can still function as vectors for various microbes that can adversely affect our health.
Lack of food safety – There are no special requirements for hygiene, or limits to antibiotics or hormones, when preparing insects.
Pesticides and heavy metals – Insects can contain residue from pesticides and heavy metals found in the ecosystem.
Histamine content – Insects are high in histamine, which can cause reactions such as flushes, headaches, nausea, and diarrhea.
Mycotoxins – These are toxic compounds that have been released into insects by certain types of moulds, which can then provoke inflammatory responses in whatever eats them. Since its difficult to remove contaminants during processing, it’s likely that at least a few of these compounds will sleep through these cracks and onto the dinner table.
High in PUFAs – While your average fleshy caterpillar is technically a decent fat source, the composition is going to be up to 70% polyunsaturated fats, which is simply a weaker form of fat when compared to saturated fat. It’s less stable, doesn’t stimulate satiety, and is generally obesogenic. So swapping out the saturated fat of red meat for the polyunsaturated fats of bug meat would be a definite step down.
Low(er) quality protein – Compared to beef, which has a DIAAS score of over 100, crickets come at around 75, which is the very low end of what is classed as a good protein source. Meaning it’s not terrible, but you could be doing better, and you probably wouldn’t want to rely on it as a primary protein source.
Not actually necessary to save the planet – Then there’s the million dollar question, the primary weapon of the insectivore arsenal. Do we need to eat insects in order to save the planet?
Fortunately we have foods that are more ancestrally appropriate, taste better, provide several magnitudes more nutrition, don’t cause allergies, and only require grasslands to thrive, of which we have plenty.
Yes, I’m talking about red meat.
To put a bow on it, insects aren’t strictly terrible, but we could also be doing much better. Our ancestors may have eaten insects, but not in large amounts, and never as the main food source. So if you’re wondering whether you can eat insects, then sure, there’s still a good chance it doesn’t give you a reaction big enough to sour the mood.
But if you’re debating whether you should, then no, just eat beef instead if you’re worried about the implications of overpopulation. Because it’s the most sustainable food source there is.