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Why You Should Be Eating Insects

At Anuga FoodTec, entomology and food science experts discuss the benefits and risks of embracing insects as an alternative protein source as the world faces increasing food security issues.

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As the world population continues to grow, our current method of livestock production is not sustainable. We cannot just keep clearing more land to raise the animals and to grow the food they need to eat.

That is part of the environmental push behind plant-based protein alternatives as well as cultivated meat. And it’s also the impetus for a growing interest in using insects as a viable protein source—both for animal feed and for human consumption.

A panel discussion at Anuga FoodTec, going on this week in Cologne, Germany, addressed the pros and cons of ramping up insect production as a novel food source. By the end of the conversation, it was clear that the pros came out on the winning side.

Nutritional and environmental benefits

Insects have great nutrient density and a high bioavailability of protein, as well as beneficial properties for heart health and immunity, notes Cheryl Rock, an associate professor of food science and technology at California State University at Long Beach. “Research has shown that the insects have bioactive proteins, compounds which result in many health benefits which can lend itself to antioxidants,” she says. “They also protect the heart because the insects contain fatty acid profiles that can protect the body against cholesterol deposits. And last, they also mitigate the immune response that produce free radicals that can keep you from getting other diseases like cancer and diabetes.”

At Anuga FoodTec in Cologne, Germany, panelists discuss the pros and cons of insects as a novel food source.At Anuga FoodTec in Cologne, Germany, panelists discuss the pros and cons of insects as a novel food source.Aaron Hand

“You know, there are so many benefits that I really wonder why people don’t eat them more,” says Arnold van Huis, a professor of tropical entomology at Wageningen University & Research in the Netherlands. He points also to antioxidants and immunity benefits. “But let’s not forget about the environmental benefits. First of all, much less greenhouse gas emissions using insects, less emissions of ammonia, less water use, less land use… So, my advice: You really should start eating insects.”

Getting over the disgust factor

In some parts of the world, insects have been on the menu for as long as humans have been around. But in other cultures, the industry will need to overcome hurdles in consumer attitudes. “There’s the issue of food neophobia, where people are not familiar with this technology,” Rock says. “So there’s the initial rejection of the possibility of exploring this particular food matrix as something that can can promote food security among various populations.”

Disgust is an important deterrent, van Huis says. “That emotion has nothing to do with rationality. So if it’s nutritionally excellent and nutritionally safe, it doesn’t matter,” he says. “Disgust is an emotion that you don’t want to eat something you don’t know and which you find scary.”

So what strategies can be used to bring consumers around? According to various studies, a quarter of the European public is willing to eat insects. For the rest of the population, van Huis suggests disguising them. “There are small companies that grind them, they dehydrate, decontaminate them, and put them into all kinds of food products,” he says, suggesting that the proteins could also be isolated to be put into other products.

Likewise, Rock suggests creating a flour from cricket or mealworm proteins that can then be used to make spaghetti, for example.

Van also suggests targeting children as consumers of insects. “Because the children, they are not biased. You’re biased; children are not,” he says. “The other thing is: Target those people that are willing to eat insects and just forget about the 80% that don’t want to do it. That’s a waste of time; they will come afterwards.”

The need for food safety regulations

As with many other foods, there are food safety concerns with insects as well. “They contain several toxins that can cause food allergies, so we have to make sure that the food that’s being produced is fit for consumption,” Rock says.

If you are allergic to seafood, you might also be allergic to insects. But that is why there are insect allergen warnings on labels, the same way there are warnings about nuts or other allergens. “There are about seven products which have now been allowed by the European Food Safety Authority and also by the European Union,” van Huis notes. “If the European Food Safety Authority indicates that it’s safe to eat, then it’s absolutely safe to eat, because that’s really a two-year process of trials and getting evidence that it is safe.”

In fact, it’s safer to eat insects that have been mass-produced—as opposed to simply harvested from nature—because all the conditions are well controlled, van Huis notes. Something to keep in mind, though, is that insect production is susceptible to economically motivated adulteration, or food fraud, Rock adds.

Insects and questions of animal welfare

The other side of regulations relates to animal welfare—the concern about making the same kinds of mistakes with insects that industry has made with other animals, and making sure they are grown and killed humanely.

Tilo Hühn of the Zurich University of Applied Sciences, who moderated the panel discussion, began doing research on insect extraction in 2014. He described the process of extracting proteins from mealworms and trying to achieve higher yields of bioactive proteins. He started to think at that time about the implications of mass-producing insects in this way. “People claim that insects cannot feel pain, but I don’t know. It differs perhaps from insect to insect,” he says. “But to make that point, if we want to change something in mass production for animals, we have to respect the point when it comes to insects.”

As van Huis points out, there is a great deal of variance in the insect world. “Bees, for example, have about 1 million neurons, while that mealworm larvae is about 30,000 neurons, so that is quite a difference,” he says. “If you go to the higher animals like cockroaches or bees, well, they very likely can experience emotions.”

The irony of the ethics is not lost on van Huis, however, who spent much of his career as a tropical entomologist before turning more focus to the notion of insect consumption. There are ethical concerns about whether we should be killing so many insects to produce the amount of protein needed, he explains. “But what people often forget is that, if you are a vegetarian, and you eat only a plant-based diet, then very likely billions of insects had to be killed to make this possible,” he says. “When I’d been working in crop protection my whole life, nobody ever asked me a question about insect welfare. Nobody. As soon as I started to work on edible insects, each audience asked me questions about insect welfare.”

But the industry is well aware of these issues, and they take precautions to act humanely. “That means that we consider insects also as sentient animals, animals with feelings,” van Huis says. “So they have procedures, like if you kill them, kill them very quickly—by grinding or using CO2, or lowering the temperature, for they’re cold-blooded animals.”

Insect use in animal feed does not face the same kind of regulatory or consumer perception hurdles that it does in human foods. It has long been allowed, for example, to feed insects to pets because we don’t eat pets, so it doesn’t pose any kind of risk for humans, van Huis notes. “More than 50% of all insect products are going into pets—into cats and dogs. So it’s a huge market,” he says. “If you talk about chickens and pigs, that has only been allowed since 2021.”

 

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