Insects: A “New” Protein Source

Aug 3, 2016 | Food Ingredients | 1 comment

The Dirt:

While insects certainly have not been integrated into the diet of the average person, food processing companies have begun to explore insects as a protein source. What are the benefits to eating insects and are they an effective answer to future food shortage issues? If you are looking for a new protein option, here is what you need to know.

According to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO), “insects supplement the diets of approximately 2 billion people.” Additionally, roughly 80% of the world’s population incorporates insects into their diet in some capacity.  In fact, eating insects as a source of protein has often been referred to as “the future of food” in the media. This is partly because the world’s population is estimated to reach nine billion the year 2050! And while we are certainly not ready to see insect delicacies featured on our local restaurant menu, we need to ask ourselves— How on earth are farmers and food processing companies supposed to feed all these people healthy food?

Companies like Exo, Chapul, and Entomo Farms are helping the U.S., Canada, and Europe successfully incorporate insects into their diet without the “ick” factor. Through insect protein-based powders and bars, these companies are helping redefine what it means to “eat bugs”. In fact, even General Mills is hopping on board and reportedly investigating new ways to use “crickets as a sustainable source of protein.”

Over the span of a year, if a family of 4 ate 1 meal a week using insect protein, they will save the Earth 650,000 liters of water” – Entomo Farms

That equates to 2,749,500 8oz glasses of water per year!

Preserving our farmland and water resources is extremely important if we hope to feed future generations. Insect protein is one of the most sustainable ways to provide nutrient dense food to a growing population, without using excess water, land, feed, or energy. Today, one in nine people do not have enough food to lead a nutritionally healthy life. Raising and harvesting insects for food is a step in the right direction in the fight against world hunger.

But, you maybe be surprised (like we were) to learn that sustainability is actually a bonus of insect farming. The real benefit of insect farming is the healthy protein they provide.

So, you might be wondering, how are insects farmed?

Honestly, we were curious about that too. Farmed insects are not caught in the wild or found nestled under a rock, captured, cooked, and served. Like many farm-raised animals, insects are bred and harvested. Insects can be wild-harvested (which is often seen throughout many parts of Southeast Asia) however, wild-harvesting can be detrimental for your health. The wild-harvest process is not regulated, thus it can lead to health uncertainties— specifically because these wild-harvested insects are not typically intended for human consumption. If you choose to consume insects, experts recommend sticking with products that have been farmed. In order to better understand the insect farming process we spoke with Entomo Farms co-founder Dr. Jarrod Goldin, who explained the Entomo approach.

Their primary concern is creating safe and clean insects. For their cricket products, Entomo Farms uses retrofitted chicken farms in order to properly cultivate their insects. Aptly nicknamed “condo’s”, the retrofit farms are divided into six habitats that maximize surface area for the crickets. Food is kept at the top of the condo and within the condo is a trough of running water. While some companies choose to use water bowls, Entomo believes stagnant water is inevitably not as clean as running water. The crickets are fed an organic grain and are harvested around six weeks, at which point they are immediately flash frozen with the use of dry ice. Because crickets are cold-blooded animals this process is also extremely humane! After they are frozen, the crickets are transported to the processing facility where they are washed thoroughly before being roasted.

Cricket Colony – Entomo Farms

When you think of eating insects, your initial reaction is probably to recoil. Don’t worry—you are not alone. But, contrary to what you might think, eating insects is a testament to clean eating.

Entomo Farms sent their crickets to be tested by a Government Certified Lab in order to determine the amount of bacteria that was present in their cricket product. An Aerobic Plate Count (APC), “is used as an indicator of bacterial populations on a sample.” (see sidebar). According to the FDA, a suitable range for frozen, chilled, precooked, or prepared food is 25-250 colonies per plate. The reported aerobic plate count for Entomo Farms Cricket Powder was roughly 10 colonies per plate. So, next time you are looking for a good, clean protein source, you might want to keep insect powder in mind!

Health and Nutrition

Forbes Magazine actually called insects “the next new miracle superfood” for their dense protein content. Some insect species weigh in at roughly 80% protein content, with a majority of species falling above the 50% protein by weight marker. Additionally, some insect species, like crickets, contain all nine essential amino acids. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), crickets are also very high in micronutrients such as magnesium, iron, and zinc. Insect species are also known to be high in calcium and contain vitamins B12 and A, and are reported to have a nearly perfect ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids.

source: Precision Nutrition

You’re not just eating muscle, you’re eating bones and organs, which deliver calcium, iron, vitamin B12, and zinc. It’s like if somebody ground up a whole cow.” (Daniella Martin, author of Edible)

source: Entomo Farms

The nutritional profile to the left demonstrates how 100g of cricket protein measures up to a traditional meal of steak and broccoli. It is important to note, however, that a typical serving size of cricket powder is roughly 2 tablespoons, or 17 grams. Therefore, it would take roughly 5 servings of cricket powder to equal a 100 gram(3.5 oz) serving of steak.

For more information on the nutritional value of insects with regards to human consumption, we recommend the following chapter from the FAO Forestry Paper, “Edible Insects: Future Prospects for Food and Feed Security” This report, published in 2013, recommends insects as food.

According to Dr. Goldin, an additional benefit of insect nutrition is the gut microbiota. As you may recall, D2D recently reviewed the importance of gut health and how a healthy stomach is connected to happy emotions. Our article, “Your Second Brain: Gut Microbiota”, investigates the benefits of probiotics and how microbes in the gut can affect the nervous system. Probiotics help facilitate the growth of native gut microbes, but, in order for probiotics to be successful at their “job”, they need fuel. That is where prebiotics come into the picture. Prebiotics feed the probiotics. Insects are considered rich prebiotics because of the fiber in their exoskeleton.

It is important to note, however, that insects can share common food allergens with crustacean, as both species are classified as arthropod. Unfortunately, there is very little research pertaining to insect-related food allergens as the industry is just starting to expand. Because of this, the European Food Safety Agency warns anyone allergic to shellfish or mites to avoid eating insects.

Food Safety and Regulation

In the United States, insect farming is still in its infancy stages. In fact, 2016 marked the first year a conference was held completely dedicated to edible insects. The North American Edible Insects Coalition met in Detroit in May to discuss the future of harvesting insects for food.

One major effort that is being hedged by the coalition is increased federal regulation as“best practices” within the edible insect space are still being established by the FDA. Lobbyists for edible insects have launched a campaign to urge the FDA to “add mealworms, crickets protein powder and other insect products to the agency’s database of Generally Recognized as Safe ingredients (GRAS)” (Bloomberg News).

In order for the insect-for-food industry to become more socially accepted, there needs to be an appropriate level of regulation for these products. Although insect products made by companies like Exo, Chapul, and Entomo Farms are considered food in the eyes of the FDA, they are not clearly regulated. One way to start successfully integrating insects into a traditional Western diet, would be for the FDA to deem edible insects as GRAS.

As it stands now, the FDA allows the sale of bugs if they are raised for human consumption. Insect parts or additives can be found at specialty shops but technically aren’t classified as food-safe ingredients because of their exclusion from the GRAS list. (Bloomberg News)

According to Newsweek, “the FDA does have some clear regulations for insects as human food. For example, producers have to follow the same best practices that apply to other foods, like proper labeling and keeping the products contaminant-free. They can’t be “wild-crafted”—meaning you can’t go pick grasshoppers out of a field and sell them at a farmers’ market. And the insects have to be raised explicitly for human food. But everyone in the industry agrees more work needs to be done.”

While we certainly do not suggest or expect you to replace all of your chicken or beef meals with insect protein, we recommend giving edible insects a chance! This doesn’t mean you need to be eating whole crickets. We admit, it’s still a little hard to wrap our heads around that! Insect protein, however, is very clean: there is nothing artificial added throughout the feed or harvest process that would negatively affect your overall health.

You can add the ultra-fine cricket powder to just about anything. Sprinkle it on top of your oatmeal, add it to a peanut butter sandwich, even mix it in with the stir-fry you are cooking. The powder can help make healthy or marginally healthy food healthier without much effort.

Entomo Farms
source: Entomo Farms

We see a day where people have sugar, salt, pepper, and cricket powder on their countertop…and you add it throughout your cooking, as you would those condiments. It would be a great step for their health and wellness and for sustainability.
– Entomo Farms

Insect farming will certainly be an industry to watch over the next several years!

The Bottom Line:

The lean and clean protein provided by insect consumption is nutritious and insect protein helps provide for our growing population. The sustainability efforts that are forged by insect farms save both water and land and help maintain our environmental resources. Keep your chicken and steak, but consider integrating insect protein into your diet in order to maintain a healthy lifestyle!


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