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Bugs trump beef in nutritional value
November 21, 2016, 1:08 pm

Global population is projected to reach nearly 10 billion by 2050 and to feed this population surge, the world will have to nearly double its food production. But already, fishing, farming and rearing cattle and fowls for food is increasingly becoming unsustainable. 

With water sources drying up faster than they can be replenished and food resources depleting, rearing insects for food could very well be the answer to humanity's future population bulge and dietary deficit.

A two-year old study by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) called ‘Edible insects: Future prospects for food and feed security’ estimated that around two billion people around the world already include insects in their diet, and nearly 2,000 insect species are consumed globally. According to the report, the insects most commonly consumed are beetles (31%), caterpillars (18%) and, bees, wasps and ants (14%).

Although insects form part of the regular diet in some countries, eating bugs and worms is not exactly the most appetizing thought in many others. But, appetizing or not, we could all soon be forced to nibble on insects to meet our nutritional needs.

With more than a billion people, or nearly 13 percent of current world population, still remaining chronically hungry, and three billion more to feed by 2050, eating insects could be the only viable option.

The idea of turning a crop pest into a best crop is increasingly gaining the attention of agriculture and nutrition researchers, as well as policy makers around the world. Not only are insects found in abundance in most parts of the world, they have also been shown to be a good source of protein. Nevertheless, the ability of insects to supply other nutritional needs of humans had not been thoroughly studies.

New research now aims to plug that gap in knowledge by examining the nutritional profile of insects in detail and, in the process, determine whether insects can fill the same nutritional needs as beef.

The team behind the study analyzed the nutritional profiles of four insects, namely crickets, grasshoppers, buffalo worms and mealworms. They assessed the mineral content of each species, especially the calcium, iron, copper, manganese, magnesium, and zinc levels, and also calculated how much of each nutrient would likely be absorbed, using a model of human digestion.

For example, the iron levels were measured in terms of how much ferritin — a protein that stores and releases iron in almost all living creatures — was produced in the researchers' gut model. Levels of ferritin correlate with the amount of iron stored in the body.

The study showed that cricket and sirloin beef had higher levels of iron, calcium, and magnesium. Importantly, crickets contained the greatest available amount of iron, trumping even beef. Additionally, the group found that the copper, zinc, manganese, magnesium, and calcium in crickets, grasshoppers, and mealworms were more readily available for absorption than the same nutrients in beef.

The researchers concluded, “Commonly consumed insect species could be excellent sources of bioavailable iron and could provide the platform for an alternative strategy for increased mineral intake in the diets of humans."

In short, insects are capable of providing much of the nutrition humanity needs at a lower financial and environmental cost. The greatest struggle, however, will be changing perceptions toward insects as food. But that may not be an option in the very near future.

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