Entomophagy, derived from the Greek words entomon “insect” and phagein “to eat,” is the practice of consuming insects as food. In many countries and cultures in the world, mostly developing countries, eating insects is a popular practice not only for their nutritional value but also for their taste. There are about 1.1 million species of insects of which 1700 are edible.
In Western cultures, however, consuming insects has become a cultural taboo, partly because of the fact that they became “the enemy” in agricultural times: they became plagues, destroyed the crops, etc.; and also because they are associated with spoiled food, decay and death, and in general, with dirt and lack of cleanliness.
However, the reality is that humans have been eating insects for centuries. Sumerians ate locusts and grasshoppers in 6000 BC, and later on Greeks and Romans ate locusts, beetles and larvae. Today, the place where people eat the most insects in a daily basis is in Asia and Africa: crickets, moth larvae, pupae, beetles and dragonflies are on the menu.
In Western cultures, most insects are consumed unintentionally: insects or pieces of them commonly remain in many foods people consume. This is so normal that the U.S Food and Drug Administration has standards for the amount of insects and insect filth contained in food. For example, in mushrooms (canned or dried) there can be up to “20 or more maggots of any size per 100 grams of drained mushrooms”. These levels of insect ‘contamination’ do not pose any health risk for those consuming them.
Eating bugs has actually many benefits for the people consuming them and for the environment. First of all, they have large amounts of protein: there is more protein in insects than in the same amount of meat and with less fat. For example, a 170 gram portion of crickets has 60% less fat than a beef burger and with twice as much cobalamin or vitamin B12. Insects have also larger amounts of calcium, iron, and vitamins B1 and B3.
Besides the nutritional benefits, insects are also more environmentally sustainable. With 7 billion people on the planet, it is impossible for all of us to be eating meat. The demand for land is the largest contributor for deforestation globally. Intensive livestock production also requires growing large quantities of feed, which also requires large areas of valuable land. In addition, water is also used in large amounts for growing feed and for the livestock. But global agriculture uses nearly 2 quadrillion gallons of rainwater and irrigation water every year, which is more than what 7 billion people use for washing, drinking and cooking combined annually.
Average of over 20 or more maggots of any size per 100 grams of drained mushrooms and proportionate liquid or 15 grams of dried mushrooms
Average of 5 or more maggots 2 mm or longer per 100 grams of drained mushrooms and proportionate liquid or 15 grams of dried mushrooms
- US FDA specification AOAC 967.24
Finally, raising such large numbers of animals releases extremely high amounts of methane (a greenhouse gas), as a result of the digestive process of cattle and hogs. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, there are 100 million head of cattle in the US and 1.2 billion in the world, which produce 5.5 million metric tons of methane per year, which represent 28% of the global emissions.
That would not be the case if people consumed insects. Almost 100% of an insect can be eaten, compared to 44% in a cow, and to produce 150 grams of grasshopper meat, very little water is required, compared to 3290 liters for the same amount of beef meat. Also, the reproduction of insects is much faster: a cricket can lay about 1400 eggs in four weeks, and in one month one ends up with an adult insect from one egg. For beef, on the other hand, one has to wait nine months of gestation and at least two years for the animal to be ready for slaughtering. And, there are no diseases that can be transmitted from insects to humans, unlike with pigs, cows, or chickens.
In Europe and in America it is now a matter of acquainting people to this new practice, because in the near future, it is these type of changes that will allow keeping up with the increasing population while respecting more the planet and the environment. Anyone can also start raising their own insects for eating: they require very little material (a box, some vegetables to feed the insects, and water) and attention, and in no time one can have a healthy amount of insects to eat.