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Want More Easy Protein? Go Eat A Bug

photo of bugs in serving dishes

Dec. 6, 2018 -- Farrah Bauer was debating which ice cream topping she should order when she saw it. Or rather, them. Chocolate-covered crickets.

They were a short-lived option on the ice cream parlor's menu, but that night of indulgence many years ago was the start, Bauer says, of her insect-eating phase

Bauer, 42, of Southern California, still indulges regularly. Crickets remain her favorite, “even if not chocolate-covered," but she's also tried a variety of other insects. "Chocolate-covered scorpion tastes just like a Nestle Crunch bar," she says. She's also enjoyed mealworm, baked and lightly seasoned.

Bauer is in the minority, at least in the United States. But the movement to encourage consumption of insects -- and to make it not weird, but a common practice (as it already is in other parts of the world) -- is clearly underway. Among the signs:

  • A 2013 United Nations report says insects can feed the world's growing population, with less effect on the environment than other foods.
  • More and more, restaurants are featuring insects, sometimes as gourmet items, and social and educational events are bug-centered. Researchers in anthropology and other areas are hosting research conferences.
  • Orders for crickets meant for humans to eat are a small but growing part of the business at Armstrong’s Cricket Farm in West Monroe, LA, says owner Jack Armstrong. Products such as cricket powder tortilla chips and protein bars are heavily promoted, becoming more common, and viewed as the easy entry to insect eating.
  • Researchers are finding that insects can be nutritious and digestible, and allergies are rare.
  • Even insect-eating fans admit there's an “ick” factor to overcome, but they have suggestions to ease that.

Insects as a Solution to Food Shortages

In 2013, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations issued a lengthy report, "Edible insects: Future prospects for food and feed security." In the foreword, the authors say: “It is widely accepted that by 2050 the world will host 9 billion people." In 2018, the total is 7.6 billion. "To accommodate this number, current food production will need to almost double." The report details how edible insects may be a solution.

Already, according to the report, insects form part of the traditional diets of at least 2 billion people. Worldwide, the hit list for insects includes beetles, caterpillars, bees, wasps, and ants, followed by grasshoppers, locusts, crickets, and others.

“Crickets get the attention," says Gina Louise Hunter, PhD, an associate professor of anthropology at Illinois State University in Normal, who is writing a book for consumers about edible insects. But, she says, "there are about 2,000 species of insects known to be edible” around the world. While some, like crickets and mealworms, are raised in captivity, “the majority worldwide are wild harvested.”

"Being able to use our resources more efficiently is going to be key to making sure there is food available for everyone," says Julie Lesnik, PhD, an assistant professor of anthropology at Wayne State University in Detroit, whose research focuses on the evolution of the human diet, especially eating insects. She organized a conference for professionals, Eating Insects Detroit, in 2016.

"Any way to reduce our reliance on livestock is a key part of that," she says. "We don't have nearly the insect biomass here, in the continental U.S., as in the tropics," Lesnik says. "In Europe, insects are not a very widespread food. Meat is a big part of the traditional ancestral European diet."

Insect Eating Events, Research Conferences

Joseph Yoon is a New York chef and executive director of Brooklyn Bugs. In mid-November, he hosted a 3-day festival with cooking demonstrations, a late-night “bugout," and “Bugsgiving,” an evening that showed how to reimagine Thanksgiving with insects as protein sources.

He is working with researchers to create a “flavor bible” for researchers, eventually producing information about various insects and how they taste. For instance, he says, "earthy mushroom, a hint of walnut, a crunchy mouth feel."

Researchers gathered again this year to discuss insect agriculture at the Eating Insects Athens conference at the University of Georgia.

Moving Into the Mainstream

At Armstrong's Cricket Farm, Armstrong, the owner and president, says a mere 3% of his orders are destined to be eaten by humans. But they have the capacity for much more. "We may put out about 8,000 pounds of frozen crickets a week," he says. The other orders go to museums, for instance, to feed reptiles, or are sold as fish bait.

He thinks the human consumption market will grow. "We can produce high volumes and not have an environmental impact."

"We sell to companies that provide cricket protein powder to make energy bars and chips," he says. "A lot of our crickets are used in restaurants."

His crickets are grown in a controlled, sanitary environment. "We use ozone generators that kill viruses and bacteria that can be in the plastic boxes [housing the crickets]," he says.

Insects as Protein: Easy on the Gut

"Insects provide a high-quality protein source," says Hunter. Insects are also often a complete protein, Lesnik says, providing all nine essential amino acids.

The amount of protein varies by product. According to the maker of Chirps chips, with cricket powder, a 1-ounce serving (generally about 10 or 15 chips) has 4 grams of protein. A 2-ounce Exo Cricket Protein Bar in apple cinnamon flavor has 10 grams, the company says.

Earlier this year, researchers from Rutgers University in New Jersey debunked the prevailing wisdom that digesting insects may be a problem because mammals can't produce an enzyme that breaks down an insect's outer shell, or exoskeleton. They found that most primates, including people, have at least one working copy of a gene, CHIA, the stomach enzyme that breaks that shell down.

In another study, researchers from the University of Wisconsin in Madison found that cricket protein may improve the gut's natural bacteria (microbiome) and ease inflammation. They fed 20 volunteers cricket protein (put into muffins or shakes) for breakfast for 2 weeks, then switched them to a breakfast without cricket powder.

The researchers took stool and blood samples at the start and end of the study. The cricket powder improved the growth of good gut bacteria and lessened an indicator of inflammation.

As for risks, Lesnik says that the only one she is aware of are people who may have an allergy to specific insects.

Armstrong has found that to be rare, at least with crickets. "We've been here 60 years," he says of his cricket farm. "We have had thousands of employees. In all those years, we had two allergic employees."

Squashing the ‘Ick’ Factor

"The disgust [from many people] is a very real thing," Lesnik says. "It gets placed in us when we are very young."

She says: "Think of a 2-year-old who will put anything in their mouth." A caregiver's reaction is: "Don't do that! Dirty!" Of course, Lesnik says, "you don't want your kid to put a bug in their mouth when playing outside."

Her advice: "Start thinking about tempering that reaction," thinking differently about insects meant as food than those found on the ground. "If we can start talking about them differently, we can train the next generation," she says.

Easy ways to ease into insect eating, she says, are trying chips made with cricket powder and getting cricket powder to add to foods. "A lot of my colleagues throw a cube of cricket powder into a smoothie," she says.

Bauer, the ice cream-with-crickets lover, suggests starting with a protein bar made with cricket flour. "Once you get past the idea this is a bug, you actually don't notice," she says.

Shaking the mental image is key, according to Armstrong, the cricket farmer. "There is this mental image that crickets or any insects are bad," he says. "It can't be good for you to eat." But, he tells people, "Commercially grown insects are totally different than what is out in the wild."

At parties, "I have a little bowl of mixed bugs," Bauer says. She puts it right next to the mixed nuts, but she labels the bugs so guests will know what's what. "About half try it, and about half say 'That's gross!’ ”

WebMD Article Reviewed by Michael W. Smith, MD

Sources

Farrah Bauer, Los Angeles, entomophagy advocate.

Julie Lesnik, PhD, assistant professor of anthropology, Wayne State University, Detroit.

Jack Armstrong, owner and president, Armstrong's Cricket Farm, West Monroe, LA.

Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations: "Edible insects: Future prospects for food and feed security," 2013.

Molecular Biology and Evolution: "Evolution of Acidic Mammalian Chitinase Genes (CHIA) Is Related to Body Mass and Insectivory in Primates."

Gina Louise Hunter, PhD, associate professor of anthropology, Illinois State University, Normal.

Scientific Reports: "Impact of Edible Cricket Consumption on Gut Microbiota in Healthy Adults, a Double-blind, Randomized Crossover Trial."

Joseph Yoon, executive director and chef, Brooklyn Bugs.

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