Insects for a Snack?

by Loloah Chamoun

If I told you that I could incorporate insects into your diet without you even noticing, would you believe me?

In January 2015, I, along with a few fellow classmates, embarked on an eye-opening journey that taught us a lot about the ever-growing food insecurity issue. Most importantly, it sensitized us to the existence of many potential solutions that are not being utilized to their full potential, for reasons including a lack of education about their benefits, a lack of public awareness, and the controversial nature of these solutions themselves.

I have since become an advocate of entomophagy, the long-standing practice of insect consumption. The indigenous Australians used to cook moths, while the ancient Algerians used to harvest locusts. Contrary to popular belief, insects are not solely seen as pests or as a famine food eaten in times of despair. They are, and have long been, a viable food source to many populations. According to the United Nations of Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), it has been estimated that two billion people readily consume insects as part of their everyday diet, and about 2000 species have been identified as edible. These include beetles (31%), caterpillars (18%), crickets, bees and ants (14%), grasshoppers and locusts (13%), cicadas and bugs (10%), and others, including mealworms and silkworms (10%). Sadly, as commonplace as insect consumption is in some parts of the world, it has yet to cross the taboo barrier in most westernized societies.

Entomophagy has multiple advantages, a major one being its sustainability. With an exponentially growing global population, FAO estimates that the world will need to increase its food production by 70% by 2050 in order to support a projected global population of nine billion. With livestock production increasingly competing for scarce resources and adversely impacting the environment, alternative solutions to conventional livestock and feed sources are urgently needed. The raising of livestock such as cows, pigs and sheep occupies two-thirds of the world’s farmland, and generates 20% of all the greenhouse gases driving global warming. Farming insects, however, produces far less emissions. Breeding commonly eaten insects such as locusts, crickets, and meal worms, emits 10 times less methane. Insects in general also produce 300 times less nitrous oxide, another warming gas, and much less ammonia, a pollutant produced by pig and poultry farming. In addition, because insects are cold-blooded, they are much more efficient at converting food into body mass. For every ten pounds of feed, a cricket colony gains four to five pounds of body mass, compared to the single pound that cows put on. Considering this together with their high reproductive rates and quick developmental times, their food conversion efficiency may be twenty times that of cattle. Furthermore, insects are an excellent source of proteins, vitamins, fats and essential minerals such as calcium, iron and zinc. A kilogram of termites or one of locusts provides about 350 to 500 grams of protein respectively— comparable to the 320 grams obtained from beef, or the 7 grams obtained from tofu (for the vegetarians out there).

If we all switched to eating insects, up to 30% of the world’s land surface could be reclaimed from the livestock industry, up to 18% of our global greenhouse gas emissions would be eliminated, and up to 33% could be cut from average food prices in most countries. However, since this is not a realistic short-term outcome, the immediate aim of insect production could be towards providing more sustainable feed for livestock, chicken and fish, as a replacement to the current resource-intense fish meal and soybeans.

As much as the option of using insects as feed replacement sounds feasible, including insects into our diet is something we are very skeptical about. As a society, we need to overcome this socio-cultural concern by slowly transforming our hesitance into intrigue—This where the role of taste education comes into play. This will help harness curiosity around entomophagy, allowing people to get involved emotionally, gastronomically, and intellectually with insect-consumption. By understanding the social and cultural backgrounds of entomophagy, as well as the benefits it provides, we will learn to develop pleasure and appreciation for what we used to think of as an unusual practice. Since it seems that both the diversity and cultural importance of traditional foods have eroded with time, entomophagy could lead the path of re-exploration for the cultural heritage and diversity of the multiple food cultures we are exposed to.

In the Developing Solutions for Developing Countries competition, organized by the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT) earlier this year, my teammates and I brought back first place against teams from all over the world. The goal of this contest was to promote entomophagy by having contestants utilize insects in the development of a solution to a common nutritional problem in a developing country of our choice. My teammates and I chose to tackle anemia and malnutrition amongst the Syrian refugees in the Middle East, a common problem in almost half of the children and women in refugee camps.. After multiple trials, we successfully developed a high-protein powder mix using ground roasted locusts, which could be used to prepare both falafels and hummus with the simple addition of water. You never would’ve guessed that insects were used as a major ingredient! The product not only tasted wonderful, but also had major nutritional benefits thanks to the addition of locusts, which provide a significant amount of protein and iron.

Naturally, we were faced with a series of problems in the making of this product, ranging from its color and taste to the ethical concerns that stemmed from using insects for edible purposes. We were able to overcome the taste and color problems by using a blend of Mediterranean spices. Since 80% of the Syrian refugees were Muslim, however, we had to ensure that the insect species we were using were halal. According to the Quran, locusts are the only insects allowed for consumption, and were thus our insect of choice. Then, we conducted acceptability analyses amongst Montrealers originally from Syria to great effect. We were definitely not the only ones that had thought of interesting ways to incorporate insects into one’s diet while serving nutritional purposes, however—ideas ranged from high protein cookies using crickets to nutritionally enhanced porridge made with mealworms, and many more.

Expanding the use of insects as food, either for humans or as animal feed, could have major implications on our health and our environment, as well as great potential to assist developing countries in alleviating nutritional issues. By being open-minded, adventurous and creative, the taboo barrier surrounding entomophagy will easily be broken.

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