The Case for Eating Bugs

The Creepy Crawly Debate

The conventional animal sources of proteins – chicken, cow, pig, and fish – could be supported by insect production, particularly in the western world, as our global population increases exponentially over the next 50 years. Sadly most of us have preconceived resistance to eating insects but when looked at objectively they are no more odd than eating a lobster or a prawn….both highly prized in the western diet. Many parts of the world eat insects and regard them as a staple and even a delicacy. Australia’s indigenous people are known to forage for whichetty grubs which live inside and feed off the wood of the whichetty bush. The larvae are sought after for their high protein content and are said (I’ve never had one) to taste a little like almonds.
But if eating insects is out the question…well I have news for you.

Regardless of our philosophical standpoint on insects, there is an incredibly high chance we are already consuming them….and often! The FDA has compiled a Defect Levels Handbook, which outlines the margin of insects which are permitted per item listed before detection and action is taken, or as they state “Levels of natural or unavoidable defects in foods that present no health hazards for humans.”

A smorgasbord of foods is on the FDA list (well-worth a little look) and include everything from AllSpice powder (Average of 1 or more rodent hairs per 10 grams) to Wheat (Average of 9 mg or more rodent excreta pellets and/or pellet fragments per kilogram). It seems inevitable that bugs and even rodents come into contact with our food or are in our food – and knowing this makes the creepy-crawly debate a little easier to get over the line.

It even appears that our much-loved peanut butter doesn’t slip through the net. Below is from the current FDA defects levels handbook for peanut butter.

I strongly recommend visiting the online handbook to give you an idea of the tolerance of insects, bugs, decomposing matter, mould, rodent hair and even rodent poop – it’s fascinating and mildly alarming but it’s reality. For food to be grown in the absence of other living creatures is not feasible or realistic – it is simply part and parcel. Anyone who has enjoyed a summer BBQ, picnic or gone camping will undoubtedly understand that food naturally attracts bugs. In Australia, you can literally count on one hand the number of seconds you can last insect-free when you unpack your food. Within moments your food is attracting flies, ants, bees, aphids, cockroaches, and fruit flies, not to mention any larger beasts such as dogs, goannas and kangaroos. Even the most stringent and regulated manufacturer of food goods can’t ensure their product is devoid of animal life. I’m sure you’re familiar with those larvae and/or bugs that seem to appear from seemingly
nowhere in your pantry. Weevils can be the bane of the anyone’s pantry, making their way inside opened packets of dried goods or feasting on unopened sealed packets of rice, grain, flour, oats, spices, and herbs. The fact that they are inside a sealed packet tells us that a.) they are the Houdini of the insect’s world or b.) they were already in transit with the food host way before you bought it off the shelf. My mum’s first job whilst still at school was standing on the factory line picking the larvae off the rice conveyor for a well-known rice company …I won’t name any names but it rhymes with Uncle Den’s. This tells us that insects are present all along the line and if we Uncle Den’s* are using poorly paid manual labour to ensure no weevils make it along the line then it’s not 100% bulletproof.

So if we are to accept and assume we could be eating up to 500g of insects unbeknownst not us per year on average then it’s safe to say they do us no harm at all and are entirely safe. For me, it has no impact on my food philosophy as I personally choose to eat an ethically sourced animal, but it could compromise the ethics of a vegan. However, it could offer a doorway into accepting insects as part of their culinary landscape. Either way, I believe insects to be an integral food source for the world’s sustainable diet.

Edible insects are now being “farmed” for mass consumption – supplying whole crickets for cafes and restaurants as well as ground down to powder for cricket protein powder. From an ecological standpoint, farming insect is an alluring proposition. The amount of land, water and feed required is negligible compared to crazy cattle. Obviously, the amount of protein by volume is greater in cattle but studies have shown that crickets contain more protein pound for pound than their heavyweight competition.

As well as offering a source of protein studies are revealing that crickets could also influence our gut microbiome. We are unpacking exactly how pivotal the role of our gut microbiome is to our overall health and longevity. In short, our gut is a rich and diverse environment playing host to microbes, yeasts, pathogens and bacteria. To ensure the richness of the gut flora it’s necessary to include prebiotics and probiotics in our diet. A study of crickets has shown that they contain a polysaccharide called Chitin which is a probiotic which helps to foster a health gut microbiome.

“Twenty healthy adults participated in this six-week, double-blind, crossover dietary intervention. Participants were randomised into two treatment arms and consumed either cricket-containing or control breakfast foods for 14 days, followed by a 14-day washout period and assignment to the opposite arm. Blood and stool samples were collected at baseline and after each treatment period to assess liver function and microbiota changes. Results demonstrate that cricket consumption is tolerable and non-toxic at the treatment dose. Cricket powder supported the growth of the probiotic bacteria, Bifidobacterium animalis, which increased more than 5.7-fold. Cricket consumption was also associated with reduced plasma TNF-a. These data suggest that eating crickets may improve gut health and reduce systemic inflammation.”

Tiny Farms in California are leading the charge in scalable insect rearing and processing – offering Americans business opportunities to become insect farmers overnight. The startup costs and associated risks are lower for a prospective cricket farmer compared to a cattle farmer.

There are numerous examples of edible insect farms and manufacturers of insect-based products even within Australia. As with any food production, for it to be considered sustainable it has funnel down the sustainability and health filter to evaluate its efficacy.

To me, edible insects in the western world are an opportunity to support the growing population in a sustainable and healthy way. To me, it is then counter-intuitive to mass-produce edible insects if intensive farming practices are employed which only contribute to ecological fragility. Furthermore, simply adding insects to existing and new unhealthy products does not get the human race any further towards a health epidemic. I am excited by the inclusion of insects into our food landscape and see the emerging industry to set a great example and learn from the misgivings in other food systems. It’s an opportunity to truly add value to food production and tick both the sustainability and health box and legitimately contribute to the ultimate sustainable diet. A quick google search of edible insects products throws up a mixed bag of goodies. On one hand, you have ant candy and insect marshmallows and on the other roasted mealworms and loose-leaf tea with ants…again some products are there to improve the health of the human race in a sustainable way and clearly, others don’t have that as a core value. I guess the take-home message here is to consider the sovereignty of the product, just as we should with any food item, and assess its impact on health and the environment.

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