Edible Insects Are More Than Just Protein

CC BY 2.0. William Neuheisel -- Cricket tacos, a.k.a. 'chapulines' in Oaxaca, Mexico

The humble insect is a potent source of minerals, vitamins, and fiber, and deserves to be recognized as such by the protein-obsessed West.

“Eat your spinach!” parents tell their kids, but if they were really worried about iron intake, they should be saying, “Eat your crickets!” Crickets contain 15 percent more iron than spinach, as well as more omega-3s than salmon. In other words, they’re a crunchy mouthful of healthfulness – as long as you can get past the spindly legs and wings.

Edible insects are often justified and encouraged among the yet-to-be-converted as an excellent source of protein. In a world increasingly concerned about land management and the pollution caused by industrial animal agriculture, it makes sense to find a cleaner, more ethical source of protein that doesn’t rely on mass abuse of animals.

But there is so much more to insects than just protein. Many researchers and proponents of entomophagy want the conversation to move beyond protein to include the all-round nutritional goodness of these little critters, which are surprisingly rich in vitamins and minerals. You could even call them six-legged superfoods.

Insects contain plenty of insoluble fiber, which comes from their exoskeletons, called chitin. Its consumption, vital for the human digestive system, has been “associated with defense against parasitic infections and some allergic conditions.”

Edible insects are packed with minerals, including zinc, potassium, iron, sodium, calcium, phosphorus, manganese, magnesium, and copper. They have high levels of vitamin A, riboflavin, and vitamin B12; and, according to EntoMarket, these can be absorbed by the human body at a rate higher than beef or wheat.

Researchers believe that certain insects, such as palm weevil larvae, could combat zinc deficiency, a serious public health concern in many poor children and mothers; the larvae contains an impressive 26.5 mg of zinc per 100 grams of dry weight, compared to beef at 12.5 mg. Similarly, iron-rich insects have potential to combat anemia in developing nations efficiently and cheaply.

Insects are fatty, particularly in larval form, and there are many countries that already use them as oil for cooking and beauty. Dutch scientist Daylan Tzompa-Sosa has experimented with extracting oil from cockroaches, flour maggots, beetle larvae, and crickets, and believes that insects are the cooking oils of the future. She described grasshopper and soldier fly oils as smelling fruity and pleasant, whereas cockroach oil, with its “especially disgusting” vomit aroma, would be better suited to industrial lubricants and paint.

The essential fatty acids found in insects, primarily linoleic and linolenic acids, could benefit populations with limited access to seafood, supplementing landlocked diets with important omega-3s.

One remarkable quality (and challenge) of insects is that their nutritional profile can be altered depending on what they’re fed. As EntoMarket writes, “Feed crickets carrots and they will be high in vitamin A.” When grasshoppers in Nigeria were fed with bran, containing high levels of fatty acids, they had almost double the protein content of those fed on maize (FAO).

Thinking beyond protein makes insects more appealing because they’re the equivalent of whole-food multivitamins. What’s not to love about a food that’s so compact, potent, and does not raise the same ethical red flags as eating animals? There’s good reason to expect this burgeoning gastronomical field to hit the mainstream in coming years.