Insects: Are They the Protein of the Future?

Shandra Martinez

| 3 min read

Any talk of moving toward a healthier diet that’s more sustainable for the planet can generate some interesting questions. Some people like to talk about vegetarian or vegan diets. Or maybe switching to more Mediterranean-style meals where fish and lean protein are the focus. But what if the conversation shifts to food that creeps and crawls? Like lemon-pepper crickets as an appetizer, or a plant-based burger made with some powdered beetles. Are insects really the protein of our future?
While the possibility of eating bugs gives some of us the willies, it’s definitely becoming a more viable talking point as we look at future food sources in the United States. Why? Because it could become a relatively inexpensive way to farm a food that is a good source of protein, fat and calories. And that could become more sought-after in a world where people are eating fewer meals with red meat because of health or environmental reasons. Or in a world where some people are suffering from malnutrition.

Insects as a protein source

Insects as a protein source is definitely not a new idea.In fact, it is estimated that insects make up part of a traditional diet of more than two billion people around the world. A lot of these people live in tropical areas. And right now there’s a list of roughly 2,000 types of insect species that are edible. Some of the most popular insects eaten as food include:
  • Beetles
  • Butterflies
  • Moths
  • Ants
  • Bees
  • Wasps
  • Grasshoppers
  • Crickets
  • Cicadas
Some of these insect food offerings are dished up as fried or steamed street food in some Asian cities, while others are used as powdered protein ingredients in meals across the globe.

Insects and our food supply

Conversations around insects as food or food ingredients have expanded as nutritionists, environmentalists and economists look at the future of our food supply in the U.S. and beyond. With the global population growing, will we be able to produce enough food for everyone in the future? The days of relying heavily on raising red-meat animals and other livestock as the primary protein source for most Americans could wane. Raising farm animals takes a lot of resources - land, water, feed and workers - while raising insects on a mass scale could be a cheaper proposition, advocates say.

How do insects stack up as a food source?

Beyond just getting over the thought of eating insects, one of the big questions has been how eating insects as a food or food ingredient stacks up against eating red meat. What does it mean for our bodies in terms of the mix of protein, fat and calories needed for a healthy diet?
A recent study shared by the National Institutes of Health answered some of these questions. It found:
  • Much like meat, the high protein content, vitamins, minerals and unsaturated fats contained in insects makes them very nutritious.
  • Some insect species studied actually have a higher caloric energy value and higher protein content than meat.
  • Unlike meat, insects can be a good source of fiber and Vitamin C.
  • Insects have a lower level of saturated fatty acids, niacin and iron.
  • Insects generally have a higher level of calcium, zinc, copper and manganese.
So while there is an “ick” factor to overcome for some people, insects could be a viable option for those looking to add healthy protein and nutrients to their diet. Their use on a global scale could also aid in solving malnutrition where it exists.
Photo credit: Getty Images

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