By Robert Preidt
MONDAY, Feb. 5, 2018 (HealthDay News) -- The next time you see a grasshopper, try to imagine it as a snack.
If might help if you know that insects are nutritious and digestible.
"For a long time the prevailing wisdom was that mammals didn't produce an enzyme that could break down the exoskeletons of insects, so they were considered to be very difficult to digest," researcher Mareike Janiak said.
But Janiak and her colleagues at Rutgers University in New Jersey say that's not so.
They found that most primates -- including humans -- have at least one working copy of a gene called CHIA. That's the stomach enzyme that breaks down an insect's outer shell, or exoskeleton.
Their study was published recently in the journal Molecular Biology and Evolution.
Scientists are still debating how effectively people digest an insect's exoskeleton, said Janiak, a doctoral candidate in anthropology.
"For humans, even if we didn't have an enzyme, the exoskeleton becomes a lot easier to chew and digest once the insect has been cooked," she said.
While people in the United States, Canada and Europe may not consider insects food, they're a staple for 2 billion people worldwide, according to the United Nations.
But most research has focused on western cultures rather than people around the world who actually eat bugs regularly.
About 1,900 insect species are edible. They are highly nutritious, containing healthy fats, protein, fiber, vitamins and essential minerals, the researchers said. But the yuck factor is a hurdle.
"It's interesting that many people who like shrimp and lobster think insects are yucky. But shellfish are kind of like underwater insects," Janiak noted.
Bugs can be quite tasty, she said. She said she's snacked on tiny crickets from Japan that were marinated in a salty paste, and a friend working in Uganda had eaten cooked grasshoppers that tasted like -- you guessed it! -- chicken.
The growing availability of flour made from sustainably raised crickets may prompt more people in western cultures to give insects a try, she said.