Eat insects and fight world hunger

A beetle for breakfast, a locust for lunch, and a dragonfly for dinner. Take your pick – whether crunchy, soft or gooey inside, insects offer the essential nutrients we need to survive.

BRThey can also make a significant dent in fighting world hunger, says food scientist Birgit Rumpold from the Leibniz Institute for Agricultural Engineering. She recently analyzed the nutritional value of edible insects and shows that, if reared and prepared correctly, they can help “break the cycle of rural poverty” - the mission for this year’s World Food Day (October 16).  

ResearchGate: Who’s regularly eating insects now, how are they eaten, and which are most sought after?

Birgit Rumpold: More than two billion people eat insects all over the world. Most live in Africa, Asia, South America and Australia, and they’re known to consume over 2,000 different insect species. These include beetles, caterpillars, bees, ants, crickets, locusts, grasshoppers, true bugs, and more. The majority of these insects are still collected in the wild and then prepared and eaten at home, or sold on markets. They can be fried, cooked, stir-fried, made into pastes or chutneys, and sun-dried… or prepared in other traditional ways comparable to other dishes.

RG: What are the health benefits of an insect diet?

Rumpold: Insects have a variety of health benefits: they can contribute to food, nutrient and protein security. They’re also rich in protein and sometimes fat, and contain several micronutrients. The composition of their proteins meets the requirements for human nutrition according to the World Health Organization. Their lipids are rich in mono- and polyunsaturated fatty acids, and some insect species are even free of cholesterol.

RG: Are they safe to eat?

Rumpold: Insects should be safe to eat if they’re reared and processed in a controlled environment using good manufacturing practice. Microbial safety is the most crucial thing, among others. That’s because most whole insects are not degutted and still contain their gut microbiota. Insects collected in the wild can contain pesticides, heavy metals, and toxins depending on the substrate they fed on. They can also carry human pathogens or other bacteria, parasites, or even viruses. Furthermore, insects – like all protein-containing food – have an allergenic potential. That means someone allergic to shellfish could be allergic to insects as well, for example. In addition, it is not known how the consumption of chitin can affect us if high amounts of insects are eaten on a regular basis.

RG: October 16 is World Food Day. Can an insect diet ease world hunger? What are the barriers?

Rumpold: Yes, insects can definitely contribute to food security and represent an additional energy and protein source. However, traditional knowledge on the harvest, preparation and consumption of insects is lost due to urbanization and so-called westernization. We need to raise awareness of insects’ beneficial and nutritional aspects, not only to induce pride in eating them, but also to impede further loss of knowledge. Insects can also greatly benefit the feed sector. They could be a feed source in organic farming, and a sustainable alternative for fishmeal and soy in feed.

RG: Have you eaten insects? Can you describe the taste and feeling in your mouth?

Rumpold: I have eaten mealworms (my favorite so far), locusts and bee larvae. They differ greatly in taste and texture, and the taste also depends on the type of dish they are in or how they are seasoned. Some are nutty, for example. Some are crunchy, and some are soft.

RG: What’s the environmental impact of eating insects and how does this compare to the meat industry?

Rumpold: Rearing insects uses less space and less water in comparison to conventional livestock. There’s also evidence from a Dutch researcher that less greenhouse gases are produced. Insects are more efficient at converting feed into body mass, have more offspring, and for some species a much shorter developmental time (from hatching to harvest). They are thus more sustainable than meat.

In saying that, overharvesting in the wild can endanger species that provide important services for the ecosystems. For example, it was shown in Mexico that some edible insect species are endangered because of careless overharvesting of large amounts of insects without regard for future generations. The biodiversity of insects is crucial for ecosystems such as forests, but also for the agriculture and food and feed security. Insects provide several ecologic services such as pollination and degradation of dead plant material.

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Deep fried grasshoppers on display on a street in Thailand.

RG: Could we rely solely on insects to live?

Rumpold: I would always recommend a well-balanced diet. If you only eat one food group it can lead to nutrient deficiencies.

RG: Is there an insect, or insect meal, you could recommend trying first?

Rumpold: If you feel disgusted at the thought of eating insects, then I would recommend trying insect meal mixed in a fruit bar or bakery product. Insect bars and food-grade freeze-dried insects can be purchased via the internet.

RG: How do you foresee the future production of insects over the next ten years, and what research still needs to be done?

Rumpold: There is still a tremendous lack in knowledge and numerous uncertainties regarding the production, but also regarding processing, composition and consumption of insects as food and feed. This needs to be investigated to overcome the existing legal restrictions. Future research also includes economic production because a lot of manual labor is still required in the rearing process. The production costs for insect protein in Europe are still too high to compete with feed prices.

I expect a lifting of legal restrictions and installment of legal regulation for production and marketing of insects in the next years and a resulting high increase in insect production.

Feature image courtesy of Pras viedegeek, deep fried insects courtesy of  killerturnip.

This story was also published in Beste Welten.