Stroll down a bustling night market in Thailand and you can spot street vendors selling aromatic and garnished bamboo worms and crickets. A must-try, these delicacies should be enjoyed while crisp and hot.
More than 1 900 species of edible insects are consumed throughout the world, and they are already a nutrient-rich part of many national diets. In Asia, red palm weevils are amongst the most popular and are considered a prized delicacy in many countries. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Ngandu people get nourishment from caterpillars during the rainy months. In Europe and North America, more and more places are starting to stock these protein-filled products on their shelves. The European Union is also taking steps to standardize insects as a food source by outlining safety regulations that allow them to be sold for human consumption.
Whether traditional or novel in your area, here are four reasons why edible insects should have a place on the menu:
1. They are nutritious
Edible insects have important nutritional value and can be healthy additions to our diets. They offer energy, fat, protein and fibre and depending on the insect, can be good sources of micronutrients such as zinc, calcium and iron.
Insects can also offer an alternative protein source to conventional meats. For example, a comparison of beef and mealworms shows that whereas the amino acids and fat content of beef is higher than of mealworms, mealworms contain comparable values of minerals and have a generally higher vitamin content.
Knowledge of the nutrient composition of edible insects can reinforce their importance in our diets. FAO, together with the International Network of Food Data Systems (INFOODS), collects, collates and disseminates food composition data. The FAO/INFOODS Food Composition Database for Biodiversity is a global repository which includes a variety of edible insects. Accurate food composition data increases the evidence base to support the use of edible insects for food and nutrition security and informs nutrition, health and agriculture policies and programmes.
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2. They are environmentally sustainable.
Edible insects hold multiple advantages for the environment. For instance, insect-rearing emits considerably fewer greenhouse gases than most other animal protein sources and requires substantially less water than livestock rearing. Moreover, the land required to raise insects is significantly lower compared to animal production, and insects are very efficient at converting feed into protein. Crickets, for example, need 12 times less feed than cattle to produce the same amount of protein.
Cricket farming has developed rapidly in recent years in Southeast Asia. To ensure that the increasing supply can sufficiently respond to international food safety standards, FAO in collaboration with Thailand’s Khono Kaen University published a Guidance on sustainable cricket farming. This manual addresses knowledge gaps among cricket farmers and government agencies to ensure food safety and hygiene.
3. They offer economic opportunities.
In addition to a food source, edible insects can provide livelihoods and income. Since insect cultivation requires minimal space, it is possible to practice it in urban, as well as rural areas, making insect rearing advantageous where other farming is not. Edible insects are also easily transportable and often easy to raise without in-depth training. Thus, insect rearing offers economic opportunities to those with minimal access to land, training and other resources.
The edible insect sector can provide inclusive livelihood opportunities for many around the world. FAO supports countries in their efforts to farm insects sustainably and enhance food security by supporting the development of insect-based value chains. By providing guidance for food safety assessments and best practices for rearing and consuming edible insects, FAO is contributing to filling knowledge gaps and facilitating a pathway for an understated food sector.
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4. They are an underutilised resource.
As the world population continues to grow, food production will need to increase, inevitably putting pressure on agricultural production and our limited natural resources. We need innovative solutions to meet the global demand for protein and other nutritious food sources and insect rearing presents an opportunity to help meet these rising demands.
While acknowledging its capacity for food and nutrition security, food safety and hygiene need to be at the forefront of discussion. An FAO publication, Looking at edible insects from a food safety perspective, analyses food safety implications associated with edible insects to help establish hygiene and manufacturing practices in the sector.
Edible insects can help enhance nutrition and food security, create new livelihood opportunities and support sustainable agricultural systems. While already consumed in many parts of the world, edible insects still have great underutilized economic and nutritional potential. With an era of new foods in the making, why not consider this natural and healthy food source as an addition to your diet!
This article was first published by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations.
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