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Why eating insects are good for you

Teresa Tanoos's picture
Eating insects are good for your health says new study from U.N.

A new study from the UN showcases the role of insects in fighting global hunger and global warming, among other things.

The study, which promotes edible insects as a low-fat, high-protein food for people, pets and livestock, also reports that certain insects reduce greenhouse gas emissions and livestock pollution; thus, creating jobs in developing countries and feeding the millions of hungry people world-wide.

“Forests contribute to the livelihoods of more than a billion people, including many of the worlds’ neediest. Forests provide food, fuel for cooking, fodder for animals and income to buy food,” said José Graziano da Silva, Director-General of the Rome-based U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization.

While insects may not sound like tantalizing food to you, they are a staple in the diets of some two-billion people, especially those living in Asia, Africa and Latin America, according to the U.N. report on the potential of edible insects released on May 13, 2013.

“Wild animals and insects are often the main protein source for people in forest areas, while leaves, seeds, mushrooms, honey and fruits provide minerals and vitamins, thus ensuring a nutritious diet,” Graziano da Silva said today at the International Conference on Forests for Food Security and Nutrition in Rome.

“But forests and agroforestry systems are rarely considered in food security and land use policies. Often, rural people do not have secure access rights to forests and trees, putting their food security in danger. The important contributions forests can make to the food security and nutrition of rural people should be better recognized,” he added.

According to the agency’s experts, the role of insects is wide-reaching. Indeed, some insects may already be in the food you’re consuming. For example, the demand for natural food coloring (instead of artificial dyes) is rising – and a natural red coloring produced by the scaled insect, cochineal, is already in a trendy Italian aperitif and an internationally popular brand of strawberry yogurt. Many pharmaceutical companies use colorings from insects in medications as well.

With about 1 million known species, insects account for more than half of all living organisms classified so far on the planet. More than 1900 insect species are consumed by humans worldwide, according to FAO’s research, which was conducted in conjunction with done Wageningen University in the Netherlands.

So what are the most popular edible insects?

According to researchers of the study, the most consumed insects world-wide are: beetles (31 percent); caterpillars (18 percent); bees, wasps and ants (14 percent); and grasshoppers, locusts and crickets (13 percent).

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And these insects aren’t just the top edible insects, they’re also nutritious.

Many insects are high in protein, good fats, calcium, iron and zinc, according to the report. When compared to beef, which has an iron content of 6 mg per 100 g of dry weight, locusts have an iron content that varies from 8 to 20 mg per 100 g of dry weight, depending on the species. Researchers studying the nutritional value of edible insects have discovered that red ants, small grasshoppers and some water beetles have the same amount of protein, but less fat, than lean ground on an ounce-per-ounce basis.

Edible insects are also a good source of fiber and are rich in many healthy minerals – including iron, magnesium, phosphorous, selenium and zinc. In addition to the nutritional benefits of edible insects, they are also eco-friendly, as most insects raised for food usually produce fewer environmentally harmful greenhouse gases than livestock, according to the report.

And the benefits don’t stop there. Edible insects are also big business. In Africa, for instance, four large water bottles of grasshoppers can sell for $20, not to mention that some insects – such as certain caterpillars in southern Africa and weaver ant eggs in Southeast Asia – are considered delicacies that can therefore be sold at a premium price.

Given that insects are found everywhere from deserts to mountains, they are also exceedingly adaptable. As a result, experts see tremendous potential for the insect farming industry, especially for animal feed. As for edible insects, most congregate in forests.

So even if eating insects makes you feel squeamish, there are a variety of other benefits they provide.

“We are not saying that people should be eating bugs,” said Eva Muller, Director of FAO’s Forest Economic Policy and Products Division. “We are saying that insects are just one resource provided by forests, and insects are pretty much untapped for their potential for food, and especially for feed,” she added.

Farming insects sustainably could help avoid over-harvesting – which, in turn, could result in a larger amount of premium species, such as meal worms. Meal worms are already produced at commercial levels for use in niche markets, including pet food, in zoos and in recreational fishing.

Like other food, sanitary preparation and processing will be important to avoid the growth of bacteria and other micro-organisms that could make humans sick. According to the report, food safety standards can be expanded to include insects and insect-based products. And quality control standards within the production chain will be critical for creating consumer confidence in feed and food that contain or were derived from insects.

“The private sector is ready to invest in insect farming. We have huge opportunities before us,” said Paul Vantomme, one of the authors of the report. “But until there is clarity in the legal sphere, no major business is going to take the risk to invest funds when the laws remains unclear or actually hinders development of this new sector,” he explained.

SOURCE: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, The Contribution of Insects to Food Security, Livelihoods, and the Environment, Edible Insects, published May 13, 2013