Insects: A New Protein Source
The world population is growing at a rate of 1.2% In response to this, food processing companies have begun to explore insects as an alternative 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.” Moreover, roughly 80% of the world’s population incorporates insects into their diet in some capacity. In the media, using insects as a source of protein has also been dubbed to as the future of food. This is partly because the world’s population is estimated to reach nine billion the year 2050! And while we may not be ready to see insect delicacies featured on our local restaurant menu, we need to ask ourselves— how 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-based protein powders and bars, these companies are helping redefine what it means to eat bugs. Even General Mills is hopping on the bandwagon and investigating new ways to “use crickets as a sustainable source of protein.”
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 a 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. Surprisingly, however, sustainability is actually just a bonus of insect farming. The real benefit of insect farming is the healthy, lean protein they provide.
How are insects farmed?
Farmed insects are not caught in the wild, 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) but, wild-harvesting can actually compromise your health. The wild-harvest process is not regulated, thus it can lead to health uncertainties, specifically because 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. The insects food is kept at the top of the condo and within it 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 at six weeks. In order to harvest the cricket for human consumption, the insects 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.
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. 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 minimally-processed protein source, you might want to keep Entomo’s insect products in mind!
Health and Nutrition
Forbes Magazine dubbed insects “the next new miracle superfood” because of their dense protein content. Some insect species weigh in at roughly 80% protein, with a majority of species weighin in 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, vitamins B12 and A, and are reported to have a nearly perfect ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids.
When you eat insects, you’re not just eating muscle, you’re also eating bones and organs, which deliver calcium, iron, vitamin B12, and zinc. It’s like if somebody ground up a whole cow and ate it!” (Daniella Martin, author of Edible)
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 (17 grams). Therefore, it would take approximately 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”
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 its effect on your brain in our article, “Your Second Brain: Gut Microbiota.” Probiotics help facilitate the growth of native gut microbes, but in order for probiotics to be successful at their job, they need fuel— this is where prebiotics come into the picture. Prebiotics feed probiotics and insects are considered rich prebiotics because of the fiber in their exoskeleton.
It is also important to note 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 2016 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)
And 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!
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 even healthier without much effort.
The Bottom Line:
The lean protein provided by insects is both nutrient-dense and sustainable. Insects harvested for human consumption offer a very promising way to feed future generations as our environmental resources become more limited. Keep your chicken and steak…but add insect protein into your diet!
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