Prospects for insects as human food


Prospects for insects as human food

Prospects for insects as human food
For the last 15 years or so, insects as human food has attracted an increasing amount of attention. Before that, people in the Western world were largely ignorant of the fact that insects could be eaten, although it is a common food item in tropical zones. For a long time, Westerners have erroneously considered it a primitive habit and a poor man’s survival strategy. Even in studies about the diet of early humans, the contribution of edible insects has been undervalued in comparison to wild meat, with a biased focus on male-oriented subsistence activities.

Now though, in the West, there is an increasing interest in the human consumption of insects, no doubt because of the urgency to change our diets. This is happening mainly for environmental reasons as the global livestock sector is responsible for about 15% of all emissions of greenhouse gases and two thirds of those of ammonia. There is also another problem: with livestock already occupying nearly 80% of global agricultural land, how can we satisfy the growing demand for meat, which is expected to increase by about 70% up to the year 2050 compared to 2020?

1 Time to reconsider our food system.
The meat substitutes currently under investigation are plant proteins, mycoproteins, macro- and microalgae, cultured meat, and edible insects. All these have their role to play. However, in this article I will focus on insects as human food. There is a huge environmental advantage from eating insects directly rather than using them as animal feed, as only one conversion cycle is necessary. If, for example, insects are first fed to pigs, and then pork is eaten by humans, this involves two conversion cycles.

Worldwide, about 1600 species are harvested from nature and consumed by hundreds of millions of people in tropical climates. In the Western world, only a tiny fraction of the population eats insects. Why this difference? The reason has to do with availability: larger insects are available throughout the year, and can be found in groups, facilitating harvesting. The species farmed in the West are mealworms (mostly the yellow and lesser mealworm), a few cricket species (but predominantly the house cricket), and some locust species such as the migratory locust. Some edible insect species are reared for other purposes, but can also be used as food, such as the silkworm pupae obtained from the silk industry or drones from the bee industry.

The interest in edible insects was mainly triggered by a FAO publication published in 2013 and since then downloaded millions of times. For many, the prospect of a new food item becoming available as an alternative to common livestock products was a real eye-opener. Life-cycle analysis comparing the production of insects with that of livestock revealed lower emissions of greenhouse gases and ammonia, and lower requirements in terms of water and land. In addition, several edible insect species can be reared on cheap organic side streams, thus contributing to a more circular economy. This is particularly true for the black soldier fly, an insect species that is primarily used as feed for pets, fish, chickens and pigs. This insect can digest almost any kind of organic side stream, even manure. But also, crickets and mealworms can be raised on organic by-products.

2 New food items with health benefits
The nutritional value of edible insects depends on many factors such as the insect species, the rearing substrate, abiotic conditions and processing. In general, the protein content compares well to meat products, while the fatty acid composition seems to be more unsaturated. They contain the necessary vitamins and minerals, and the high content of iron and zinc is an advantage considering that two billion humans are iron and zinc deficient. There may also be other health benefits. Bioactive compounds in edible insects may be involved in preventing oxidative stress (antioxidants) or hypertension (angiotensin-converting enzyme inhibitors), and fat reduction. Moreover, the polymer chitin in the exoskeleton of the insects cannot be synthesized by the human body, and therefore targeted by our immune system, and in this way strengthening it.

There are two ways of processing insects. The easy way is to use whole insects, which need to be decontaminated (thermal treatment) and dehydrated, after which they can be ground into powder, resulting in insect flour. The second possibility is to isolate the insect proteins, fats and chitin. The insect flour or proteins can then be incorporated in all kinds of familiar food products, such as bread, pasta, energy bars, burgers and others.

The percentage of people in the Western world willing to eat insects ranges from one fifth to one quarter. The biggest hurdles are disgust and neophobia. Disgust as a negative emotion is triggered because insects are considered extremely unpleasant (revolting). Neophobia is a fear of novel foods because they may constitute a food risk. The fact that insects can be produced more sustainably than meat products does not appear to be a convincing argument. However, providing information about their origin, food safety, the preparation, and sustainability may have a positive effect. Strategies for increasing their acceptance include giving people a tasting experience by organizing so-called bug-banquets, using role models, targeting children, and incorporating insects in familiar products in an unrecognizable form.

3 The EU Novel Foods legislation
The production and marketing of insects as food in Europe is governed by the Novel Foods legislation. Those foods were not used for human consumption to a significant degree within the EU before 15 May 1997. Insect-producing companies must provide documentation to the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), the EU’s risk assessment body, which then evaluates the potential safety risks implied by the consumption of the product. Six novel food authorizations for edible insects have come into force between 2021 and 2023, viz. specific formulations of lesser mealworm, house cricket, yellow mealworm and migratory locust. Although they have been declared safe, consumers allergic to crustaceans and house dust mites may be allergic to edible insects. They both have the same main invertebrate allergen, the protein tropomyosin. As a result, food business operators are required to mention these risks on their labels.

When producing insects as mini-livestock, the question arises whether the welfare of these farmed insects should be considered. In other words, are insects ‘sentient beings’, able to experience emotions? Although insects brains are small, they have achieved a high degree of centralization during their long evolutionary history. Concerning behavior, insects are capable of social and associative learning, and they have a large repertoire of communicative abilities such as tactile, chemical, visual, and vibrational. Therefore, the precautionary principle is used, with the assumption that insects can experience emotions. This means among other things, that the used killing methods should be quick and effective, e.g., freezing (insects are cold blooded), heating (cooking or blanching), and shredding. Furthermore, the large number of insects needed for the same amount of nutrients compared to e.g., a pig, has been used as an argument for not using them as food. However, for producing plant-based diets, plants need to be protected from insects, which therefore have to be killed in large numbers.

The sector of insects as human food is developing fast. Prices of insect-based products will become increasingly competitive compared to common meat products and other protein alternatives. The main challenge is to convince consumers to eat them, and stressing their low environmental impact may not be enough. For that reason, strategies should focus on making insect-based products delicious, incorporating them in familiar food products, giving consumers a taste experience, using role models, providing information on preparation, sustainability, and food safety, and making them available in supermarkets.
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Authors and Affiliations
Laboratory of Entomology, Wageningen University & Research, P.O. Box 16, Wageningen, 6700 AA, the Netherlands
Arnold van Huis

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