12 January - 20 June 2016

Edible insects – a solution to food security?

A review published in Nutrition Bulletin has highlighted how insects have been a source of food for hundreds of years, and are naturally high in protein and micronutrients. The papers examines the nutritional and environmental benefits and challenges.

A review published in Nutrition Bulletin has highlighted how insects have been a source of food for hundreds of years, and are naturally high in protein and micronutrients.  The papers examines the nutritional and environmental benefits and challenges. 

Popular insects for consumption fall into the categories of beetles (31%); caterpillars (18%); bees, wasps and ants (14%); grasshoppers, locusts and crickets (13%) cicadas, leafhoppers and crickets, scale insects and true bugs (10%); dragonflies (3%) and flies (2%) and are consumed at various life-stages.   The review by Doberman et al. note that nutritionally, the energy content of insects is similar to other meat sources apart from pork.  However nutrients, such as protein, fat and energy, may vary depending on what the insect has been fed, environmental factors, sex and stage of development.  Insects are stated to have a similar unsaturated fatty acid profile as white fish, and poultry, although this is again dependent on what the insect have been fed.  Whilst they contain little or no traces of EPA and DHA, the authors cite a study that fed black soldier flies fish offal, which increased their levels of EPA and DHA. 

Micronutrients vary across species, with iron levels being low in ants, mid-level in termites and highest in crickets, ranging from around 18 to 1562 mg/100g, although Doberman et al. suggest that metal contamination may be responsible for some variations while type of iron has yet to be identified.  Data is limited on the amount of zinc, calcium and vitamin A content in insects.

The paper discusses environmental considerations. In a press release Doberman states “In ideal conditions, insects have a smaller environmental impact than more tradition Western forms of animal protein: less known is how to scale up insect production while maintaining these environmental benefits.” Data has suggested that “taking into account the percentage of the animal edible, mealworms have a lower water footprint than the other livestock.”, although the review notes that the data is limited.  Preliminary results suggest that insects produce far fewer greenhouse gas emissions, and are on a par with chickens. 

Doberman et al. discuss the hurdles of using insects as food and feed including that they may contain “anti-nutrients” such as chitin, microbial risks and allergens.  The scientists discuss how spore forming bacteria and enterobacteriaceae have been found in mealworms and crickets and are higher in crushed insects. They note that “further systematic work is required to establish the safe shelf-life of edible insects”.  Regarding allergens, the authors discuss how data on allergens is limited and that current studies suggest that individuals with crustacean allergies will react negatively to insects and that there may be several additional novel insect allergens to consider.”

The paper looks at regulations and discusses how EFSA has stated that all insect products for human consumption will be considered a Novel Food and must be submitted for Novel Food approval by 2018 with a 2 year transition periods allowing already approved products to stay on the market until 2020. These rules are similar in North America. The team notes that whilst acceptance of insects as a human feed is low in Western Cultures, there is more support for insects as animal feeds.  The team conclude by stating that future research needs to address a number of questions relating to “scaling up of insect production to commercial levels.”

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