Nutrition: Would you eat insects sold in the supermarket?
EDIBLE insects are creating a buzz. They may not be on your lunch menu just yet, but more than two billion people around the world already supplement their diet with insects, and crickets, mealworms and other creepy crawlies are set to become increasingly popular in the UK.
Earlier this summer, Henry Dimbleby, co-founder of Leon restaurants and non-executive board member of Britain's Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, who is leading a review of England’s food system, said that edible insects could form part of the first national food strategy for 75 years.
Their appeal is that they are environmentally friendly, because they take up fewer natural resources than rearing livestock, and are also a healthy alternative to meat.
For example, 100g of crickets contains 121 calories, 12.9g of protein, 5.5g of fat. This, says the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, compares favourably with meat, as while 100g of ground beef has more protein, it is also much higher in fat.
A study last month from Teramo University in Italy found silkworms have twice the level of antioxidants – chemicals that protect our cells from damage and ageing – as olive oil. Crickets, meanwhile, pack almost as much of an antioxidant punch as fresh orange juice.
All of which might help explain why Barclays predicts the global market for edible insects could be worth almost £6.5 billion by 2030.
In the recently published report, Insect Protein: Bitten By The Bug, Barclays analyst Emily Morrison says that just as sushi was once considered ‘weird and wacky’, insects could soon become ‘mainstream’. Last November Sainsbury’s became the first UK supermarket to sell crickets. Now, supermarkets and websites offer everything from crunchy whole cricket snacks, to insect flour, and granola peppered with powdered beetle larvae.
However, Charlotte Payne, a zoologist at Cambridge University who has studied edible insects for the past eight years, cautions there are many unknowns about the nutritional value of insects, which are generally raised on ‘insect farms’ in Canada, the Netherlands and other parts of continental Europe.
"One thing to look out for is adult versus larval insects – these have quite different nutritional compositions," she says.
"With larvae, you expect quite a lot of fat, adults are leaner with more protein. Crickets and mealworms are low in fat and high in protein. Other insects can be high in cholesterol."
Her research found palm weevil larvae (also known as the sago worm) to be particularly high in cholesterol.
And while certain breeds might well be high in particular health-boosting nutrients, it is unclear how well the human body can use them.
"We don’t know anything about the real health effects," she adds. "What we haven’t done is controlled trials with humans, seeing what happens when they switch from eating meat to eating insects. That is going to be important."
Preliminary Swiss research funded by the Wellcome Trust suggests eating insects rich in iron, a mineral essential for making blood, doesn’t actually boost levels of iron in people.
It may be that the human body lacks the necessary enzymes to process the insect iron. Those who are allergic to shellfish are advised to avoid eating insects because they contain some closely related proteins.
That said, the ‘yuck factor’ is probably one of the biggest barriers to edible insects becoming the norm.
Dr Simon Steenson, a nutrition scientist at the British Nutrition Foundation, says: "Although many of us may have an aversion to eating whole crickets, insects can be added as a powder to flour used to make pasta or biscuits which may be more acceptable."
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