Insects: The “New” Frontier

Insects: The “New” Frontier

I distinctly remember a class I took in my undergraduate studies at Boulder where a guest speaker came in and introduced us to the idea of eating insects. She brought our class multiple insect dishes including cricket chocolate chip cookies and cricket popcorn. Just about everyone was uneasy at the idea of eating something made of insects, but out of curiosity (or whatever it was), everyone in our Writing through Food and Culture class tried it, and many actually liked it!

“Approximately 25% of the world’s population consumes insects in their diet.”

According to online sources, approximately 2,000,000,000 people in the world (~25% of the entire population) regularly consume insects in their diet as a major source of protein. When taking a closer look at both the cost and the nutrition facts associated with this kind of nutrition, it’s no wonder why! If you are not a vegan and can get past the idea that eating bugs is gross, not only are insects incredibly cheap, but they’re also an excellent source of high-quality protein, vitamins, minerals, fatty acids, and surprisingly, according to a 2019 study, have more antioxidant capacity than orange juice.

There are multiple big players now in the space of edible insects, but their talking points have long been focused on protein content being superior, as well as being dramatically more sustainable for consumption compared to our more common forms of animal protein. The Food and Agriculture Organization claims that “…crickets need six times less feed than cattle, four times less than sheep, and twice less than pigs and broiler chickens to produce the same amount of protein.” Not only that, but they produce significantly less greenhouse gasses than these animals, as well as requiring less land to raise. In view of the growing world population and the associated need to feed them, switching dietary habits to a source of protein which does not have the devastating effect on climate change compared to raising millions of cows and and soybeans to feed them makes a lot of sense.

“Researchers compared the antioxidant capacity of 14 different homogenized insect solutions to fresh orange juice.”

In the above study, researchers at the University of Teramo, Italy, under the leadership of Associate Professor Carla Di Mattia, homogenized 14 different insects into 14 different solutions in order to compare each one to fresh orange juice. They looked at radical scavenging activity (TEAC), ferric reducing antioxidants power (FRAP), and total polyphenol index (TPI). Investigators did not look at concentrations of individual polyphenols.

The water-soluble extracts of grasshoppers, silkworms, and crickets showed the highest values of antioxidant capacity (TEAC), five times higher than fresh orange juice. All three of these insects were found to be around 2.5mmol TE/100g whereas orange juice was below 0.5mmol TE/100g.

With regard to reducing power of water-soluble extracts (FRAP), which measures antioxidant activity in a food, African caterpillars (1.88mmol Fe2+/100g) and crickets (2.12mmol Fe2+/100g) were the highest, at about 2 times higher than orange juice (0.94mmol Fe2+/100g).

And finally, the total polyphenol index was tested, which measures the total phenolic content. It was found that grasshoppers (492mg GAE/100g), black ants (452mg GAE/100g), and mealworms (406mg GAE/100g) contained the highest levels of the insects, but all were still lower than orange juice (496mg GAE/100g).

“We know that consumption of foods rich in polyphenols (fruits and vegetables) is associated with lower prevalence of several chronic diseases.”

We know that consumption of foods rich in polyphenols (fruits and vegetables) is associated with lower prevalence of several chronic diseases, including cardiovascular disease and early cognitive decline. Several placebo-controlled studies in humans have demonstrated a reduction in cardiovascular morbidity and cognitive decline by regular intake of flavanol intake, a group of polyphenols contained in pomes fruits and cocoa beans.

Based on these intriguing findings the questions arises if insects are not only a cheap source of protein, but also of health promoting bioactive molecules. However, before any conclusions about possible health benefits from eating insects in humans can be made, they need to be confirmed in humans after consumption of the insect powder in placebo-controlled studies. As polyphenols are too big to be absorbed in the first part of the small intestine, they have to be broken down by gut microbes into absorbable molecules in order to exert any systemic effects.

I personally have no intention to replace my regular consumption of a traditional Mediterranean diet, with lots of fruits, vegetables, and a moderate consumption of certain fish and organic chicken. Also, to clarify, I am not suggesting that individuals who don’t eat any animal products for ethical reasons (e.g., vegans and vegetarians) should add insect proteins/polyphenols to their plant-based diet. However, the search for alternative cheap sources of protein is essential to feed populations suffering from undernutrition and starvation, and this seems like a viable approach.

E. Dylan Mayer is a graduate from the University of Colorado at Boulder with both a major in Neuroscience and minor in Business. He is fascinated by the interactions of brain, gut and microbiome, and the role of nutrition in influencing the health of our microbiome, as well as our own well-being. He will begin his Master’s Degree in Human Nutrition at Columbia University this Fall.