Insect food – the answer to the challenges of today’s food production?

Insect food – the answer to the challenges of today’s food production?

Heli Koskinen

Have you already tried insect foods? If not, would you?

Insect foods have been gaining more and more interest over the last few years. So far insects have not managed to reach the position of mainstream delicacy, though visionaries suspect that it will only be a matter of time when that happens. However, insects have the potential to revolutionize the Western food culture and offer one solution to the problems of current food production. The main benefits of insects are that they are ecological to produce and they have excellent nutritional values. Could insects eventually become a serious rival to meat and plant proteins?

Insects as a part of the human diet now and before

Insects have been a part of the human diet for thousands of years. Various species of insects have been an important source of protein and a part of the normal diet especially in the East and Southeast Asia, Africa, some parts of Australia and Latin America (Mexico and the Amazon area). According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), today insects are a part of the diet for over 2 billion people. FAO estimates that there are about 1900 edible species of insects in the world.

In the West, however, eating insects has been considered primitive and disgusting and the people who eat them have been perceived as uncivilized. Even though insects were eaten for example in Ancient Greece, there was no need to eat insects in the West as agriculture developed and livestock became domesticated. Along with agriculture, insects were also most likely seen more of as a nuisance which disturbed the cultivation and growing of food. Insects were also started to be associated with dirt and diseases. All this has contributed to the image insects have in the Western culture today and why we are not used to think of insects as something worth eating.

These culture-bound associations related to insects are very different in Asia, Africa, Australia and Latin America. In these areas insects have not been eaten only because it was necessary but because they have also been considered as a delicacy. Eating insects has also been easier in the tropics for practical reasons than in the temperate climates (except for China, Japan and Mexico). The insects are bigger in the tropics and they also appear in larger groups which makes it easier to catch them. It is also possible to find various insects in the tropics all year round.

The production and selling of insects for human consumption

Different legal approaches apply to edible insects in different parts of the world. First, in the Anglo-Saxon countries, UK, USA, Canada, New Zealand and Australia, the import and sales of insects have been authorized. Second, in the non-Western countries insects are often considered a normal traditional food and insects are rarely exported or imported. Third, in the remaining Western countries, including the EU, the selling of insect foods have been placed under certain regulations.

The production and commercialization of insects as foods is not yet authorized in all EU countries. Currently companies who want to sell insect foods are subject to the EU Novel Food Regulation enacted in 1997. The law requires that all foods that weren't “used for human consumption to a significant degree” in Europe before the law was enacted need to be approved by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) before they can be placed on the market. Therefore the majority of the EU countries are still waiting for the final green light from EFSA for putting insect products on the market.

However, certain countries have taken a permissive approach to the Novel Food Regulation. The production and commercialization of insects as foods is allowed in Finland, Denmark, the Netherlands, Austria and Belgium. For example in Finland, tens of insect farms are already running all over the country raising mealworms, house crickets, drone larvae and buffalo worms. Numerous startups have been established in the last few years to explore the possibilities of insects as nutrition and bringing foods such as cricket protein powders, cricket chocolates and insect flours on the market. The insect food industry is booming in Finland, perhaps foreseeing the situation in all of Europe in a few years.

It is expected that insect foods will get their final authorization across the EU already perhaps later this year. At the moment six applications are in the process of being approved. These include whole or ground mealworms, lesser mealworms, grasshoppers, locusts and crickets. The final authorization opens up new opportunities for the mass production of insect foods to be sold across Europe.

Edible insects are an ecological option to meat

Edible insects are seen as one solution to how to feed the growing number of the world's population. It has been estimated that by 2050 the number of the whole population will reach 9 billion which places a considerable conflict between sufficient food production and the protection of the environment. The continuing climate change also pressures us to find new ways to reduce meat production and to find other alternatives for it. Insect farming is very ecological compared to the production of other protein sources, especially meat production: the raising of insects takes very little space compared to cattle or plants, they emit much less greenhouse gases and ammonia than livestock and they also require much less water and feed. Insects are an even more ecological option to plants because they take up much less space than cultivated plants.

Another positive factor about insect farming is that it can quite easily be combined with other farming activities. Farms can take care of the raising of the insects and sell the insects to companies for further processing. Refuse such as food scraps can also be used as feed for the insects so insect farms would also be reducing and recycling waste.

On the other hand, the need to start eating insects is not as acute in the West as in the developing countries in Asia and Africa where the need for more protein for the growing population is real now. Plant proteins are starting to have a strong foothold as the alternative to meat in the West and – at least for now – they are perceived as a more approachable option to meat than edible insects. In a few years time the situation can however be completely different; no lasting change happens overnight.

Insect farming is also considered more ethical than livestock production – though this is a very subjective interpretation. Insects are slaughtered by freezing: the insects go into hibernation – which is a natural state for them – after which they pass away. Insect farming raises certain ethical questions since at the end of the day it is about eating alive beings.

Insects are a nutritious source of protein

Another good reason for using insects as nutrition is the fact that they have excellent nutritional values: insects contain a lot of protein, good fatty acids, vitamins, minerals and fibers. The nutritional values vary a lot though depending on the species and the developmental phase of the insect. About 50 % of the weight of dried insects is protein on average. For example, the fatty acid composition of mealworms is comparable to fish and crickets are rich in vitamin B12 which cannot be obtained from a plant-based diet. Mealworms and crickets also contain a considerable amount of vitamins C and D.

In addition to the impressive nutritional values, the use of insects as nutrition requires more research for example on possible allergies. The protein structure of insects is similar to crustaceans so for example people with shrimp allergy can’t necessarily eat insects either.

The flavour of insects is described as nutty or even resembling the taste of chicken or prawn. If you are curious about whether these descriptions are true, check out our selection of insect foods and try them yourself!

Sources:
FAO: Edible insects – Future prospects for food and feed security
BBC: Could insects be the wonder food of the future?
The Guardian: Edible insects set to be approved by EU in 'breakthrough moment'
Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO): Insects for food and feed

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