By Cai McCann
Entomophagy, the consumption of insects, provides a new, innovative, and up-and-coming solution given the exploding human population and the consequent call for environmentally sustainable food alternatives. Some may argue that entomophagy is just another passing fad, especially since it is a relatively neglected yet important area of research. However, in many cultures, this diet already has a precedent, whether it’s munching on chocolate covered grasshoppers, splurging on tarantula doughnuts, or opting for a green papaya salad with grilled marinated scorpions (Food & Wine 2018). In recent years, the study of the nutritional attributes of these creepy-crawlies not only gives stock to these pre-existing gastronomic lifestyles, but also provides interesting and nutritious alternatives to individuals interested in different approaches to meat and methods of reducing their carbon footprint.
In a 2016 study (Latunde-Dada et al. 2016), researchers investigated the mineral contents and availability of common and important minerals (iron (Fe), calcium (Ca), copper (Cu), magnesium (Mg), manganese (Mn), and zinc (Zn)) in the four popular insect delicacies: Grasshopper, cricket, mealworm, and buffalo worm. They then compared these results to those of sirloin beef. Specifically, they measured the concentrations of minerals, called “bioavailability,” and their solubility, or ability to be absorbed and used by humans. They also injected cut-up “digested” versions of the samples in plates of human cell cultures to see how the cells metabolized the protein and ferritin (a metabolic proxy for iron) concentrations.
From these different experiments, Latunde-Dada et al. discovered that crickets had significantly higher levels of Fe, Ca, and Mn relative to beef; also, overall Fe solubility was higher from insect samples than from beef. Since mineral solubility is key for absorption and use in human metabolism, these results indicate that we more efficiently soak up bug-derived minerals. To this end, grasshoppers, crickets, and mealworms contain higher chemical availability of Ca, Cu, and Mg, and Zn than sirloin and represent an excellent alternative strategy for increased mineral intake.
These bioavailable sources of iron and other minerals would be beneficial for sustainable, agricultural production for the growing pains of a food-insecure global population. Moreover, these improvements to food insecurity are already underway. Grasshoppers, crickets, mealworm, and buffalo worms are commercially farmed. Insects as a mainstream source of nutrition would provide an environmentally safe and non-disruptive platform for food security, compared to beef raising, which requires vast swaths of land, resources, and time.
Insects also represent more diverse options, not only because there are over 1,900 insect species documented as food sources globally, but because they are a rich source of other important nutrients, such as monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids, minerals, and vitamins (Huis 2013; Stork 2018). While there is still a relatively large gap of knowledge about absorption and bioavailability of insects, studies such as these reveal the potential positive effect of insects as a source of minerals.
So what if we substituted or replaced meat with insects? If you leave with anything from this article, realize that the obtained iron content of crickets is 180% greater than that of beef, and the mineral solubility (ability to absorb and use the minerals) is greater for insect species as well. The next time you are considering what to munch on, consider this: insects significantly contribute to the daily dosage of minerals and bioavailable iron required in human diets.
If we shift towards a more diverse and potentially even more nutritious source of food, we release stress on the system demanding more beef and mammal-based sources of proteins and minerals. I personally come from a relatively vegetarian family and habitually do not consume enough meat. Iron-deficient anemia, whether through conscious choices/exemptions of traditional iron sources, such as meat, is a real issue for individuals who rely on mostly plant-based diets, and it can take a toll on health and day-to-day function, energy levels.
So what’s your next meal du jour? It is crucial to weigh the benefits from all sides, and maybe you will find yourself reaching for the crickets.
7 Upscale Insect Dishes from Around the World. (n.d.). Retrieved October 30, 2018, from https://www.foodandwine.com/travel/gourmet-bug-dishes-around-world
Huis - 2013 - Edible insects future prospects for food and feed.pdf. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.fao.org/docrep/018/i3253e/i3253e.pdf
Huis, A. van. (2013). Edible insects: future prospects for food and feed security. Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
Latunde-Dada, G. O., Yang, W., & Vera Aviles, M. (2016). In Vitro Iron Availability from Insects and Sirloin Beef. Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, 64(44), 8420–8424. https://doi.org/10.1021/acs.jafc.6b03286
Stork, N. E. (2018). How Many Species of Insects and Other Terrestrial Arthropods Are There on Earth? Annual Review of Entomology, 63, 31–45. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-ento-020117-043348