Many cultures already include this ingredient in their daily diets, but for most of the Western world, the very thought of ingesting it brings on a montage of involuntary facial expressions. But this one divisive ingredient may just be the future of food.
Of course, I’m talking about insects. I spoke with Lara Hanlon of éntomo, an organization purporting the value of entomophagy (the practice of eating insects) by providing information, stats, and recipes.
In an effort to understand a little better why it’s good for our global wallets, welfare, and taste-buds, here are some reasons why insects might just be our saviors.
According to the Entomological Society of America, there are over 800,000 species of insects on the planet, not to mention those not discovered yet. Already, they're used in some regional South American and Asian diets—served grilled, canned, freeze-dried, ground up into flour, baked into candy, and eaten alive. Common insects to eat include grasshoppers, crickets, scorpions, silkworms, and more. Some recipes call for some ants just chopped right in there, while others prefer to grind their insects into powder for a slightly less...obvious feel. For example, Lara makes éntomo energy bites made of cricket flour, dates, nuts, seeds, and coconut. “They’re simple to make, full of natural ingredients, and taste like toffee and cacao!” she promises.
Compared to traditional meats like beef and pork, insects often win out in terms of nutritional value. There’s almost the same amount of protein, calcium, and iron per 100g in insects as in livestock, but the fat level is much lower: 5.5g for grasshoppers versus 23.3g in beef. Plus, insects come without any of the health risks associated with red meat, like heart disease and diabetes. Crickets hold less than half the amount of calories than beef for the same serving size, while dung beetles and red ants are super high in protein and calcium. Venturing into the world of entomophagy doesn’t mean renouncing your old diet completely, but Lara says since she “began exploring edible insects as a future food source, I’ve become more conscious about my eating habits,” rarely eating red meat and avoiding processed foods as often as possible.
The human population is growing at an alarming rate, and available land for farming is dwindling. Natural resources are extremely limited already and food prices are rising. It’s not all bad—there are some exciting initiatives popping up with the shared goal of a brighter food future (Lara mentions cultured meat and urban farming in particular). But insects provide a trustworthy sustainable food source for a few key reasons: they release considerably less harmful greenhouse gases, they reproduce quickly, and don’t need very much feed or maintenance in general. In fact, according to éntomo, a pound of mealworm protein has a gas footprint 1% as large as a pound of beef. Numbers don’t lie.
The global edible insects market is already rising, and is expected to increase up to 40% by 2023. As a relatively new market, there are many growth opportunities, especially since production doesn’t require a huge amount of overhead in terms of feed (many bugs feed on food waste produced anyway, plus they get heat from the sun) and space (smaller quarters are sometimes even better for insect growth). Insects are cheaper to rear and easy to prepare, meaning the market can produce solid financial results without a huge amount of initial financing.
Even Lara admits the shift to insects took some willpower: “When I first contemplated putting insects in my mouth I was very grossed out! The concept was pretty alien to me, even though I would have considered myself an adventurous gourmand at the time.” On their own, insects have been described as crunchy, nutty, and flavorful. But when ground up into snack bars or flour, the taste is quite neutral and can be ingested basically unnoticed.