Trick or treat? Or an undervalued source of high-quality protein?

How do you feel about insects for dinner?  The answer to that question probably depends upon where you live.  Wild-harvested insects have been a staple of the diet among many cultures in Asia and Africa for centuries.  Nonetheless, there remains significant resistance to such foods in other parts of the world, in particular in North America and Europe, where the thought of insects for dinner might seem more like a Halloween trick.

In a 2019 Commentary published in The Journal of Nutrition, Andrew M. Salter argues that given global population growth, coupled with the impact of climate change on food production, “there is an increasing consensus that novel sources of high-quality protein may be required.”  The author further argues that the solution may be insects, which are “richer in many indispensable amino acids than many alternative plant proteins.”

In addition to the nutritive value of insects, the production of insects as food products tends to be more environmentally friendly and sustainable compared to traditional meat products such as beef, pork, and chicken.  Did you know that…

  • Cricket flour’s food-conversion efficiency is twice as high as chicken and pork, four times that of sheep, and six times that of cattle?
  • Mealworms consist of 100% consumable and digestible mass compared to 55% for chicken and 40% for beef?
  • Crickets require significantly less water per gram of protein produced compared to chicken and cattle?
  • Crickets emit much lower greenhouse gas emissions per kilogram of biomass compared to pigs and cattle?

Insects may not yet appeal to everyone’s palate.  Nonetheless, ASN Journals have been fostering research into the nutritional value of insects and the possibility of leveraging that nutritional value by scaling up production to feed a planet in need of healthy sustainable food sources.  Below are a few recent examples of published articles:

Insects are a viable protein source for human consumption: from insect protein digestion to postprandial muscle protein synthesis in vivo in humans: a double-blind randomized trial, The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, May 2021

In this double-blind randomized controlled trial, Wesley J. H. Hermans et al. sought to determine how insect protein, specifically protein derived from the lesser mealworm, a member of the beetle family, affects postprandial muscle protein synthesis among humans compared to cow’s milk protein.  Twenty-four healthy men, aged 21 to 27, were randomly divided into an experiment group and a control group.  The 12 men in the experiment group ingested 30 grams of lesser mealworm following resistance exercise, whereas the 12 men in the control group consumed an equal amount of cow’s milk protein following a bout of resistance exercise.  Through the collection of blood and muscle samples, the authors determined that “ingestion of lesser mealworm and milk protein concentrate are both followed by rapid protein digestion and amino acid absorption, with more than 70% of the ingested protein-bound phenylalanine being released into the circulation during the five-hour postprandial period.”  These results led the authors to conclude that “insects can provide a viable, high-quality protein source for human consumption.”  Clearly, there is interest in insects as an alternative protein source for human consumption: this study ranks among the top 5% of all research outputs scored by Altmetric.

Insect Meal as Alternative Protein Source Exerts Pronounced Lipid-Lowering Effects in Hyperlipidemic Obese Zucker Rats, The Journal of Nutrition, February 2019

In this animal model study, Denise K. Gessner et al. demonstrate that replacing casein, a protein found in mammalian milk, with protein-rich insect meal improves the metabolic health of hyperlipidemic rats in a four-week feeding trial.  The metabolic improvements associated with the consumption of insect meal included reductions in plasma and liver cholesterol and triacylglycerol.  The insect meal was derived from mealworms, which are widely consumed in parts of Asia.  Although this was an animal model study, the authors believe their results have implications for human health as well: “Considering that hyperlipidemia is a well-known risk factor for cardiovascular diseases and that fatty liver disease… also increases cardiovascular disease risk, our finding clearly indicates a great potential for dietary insect meal to improve metabolic health.”  The authors did note that “from the present study it cannot be answered which compounds in the protein-rich insect meal are causative for its lipid-lowering effect.”  They have therefore called for more research to address this open question.

Fostering Strategies to Expand the Consumption of Edible Insects: The Value of a Tripartite Coalition between Academia, Industry, and Government, Current Developments in Nutrition, June 2018

“Insect-based foodstuffs have been an integral component of the diet of many cultures for centuries, having established themselves as nutritious and inexpensive foods,” according to ASN member Joel B. Mason et al.  On the other hand, the authors note “there remains a negligible market for the sale and consumption of such foods in several regions, including North America and Europe.”  In this article, the authors discuss the proceedings of the inaugural meeting of TOPIC (Tripartite Organization for the Promotion of Insect Consumption), a working group whose mission is to “explore the diverse array of potential benefits accompanying the increased consumption of insect-based foods and to define the strategies that would be needed to establish a robust market for these foods.”  The authors, all members of TOPIC, identified the overarching objectives that they judged to be essential to successfully creating large and financially viable markets of healthful insect-based foodstuffs: 1) optimizing production, 2) exploring health implications, and 3) market development.

According to A Global Review of Food-Based Dietary Guidelines, published April 2019 in Advances in Nutrition, only one country, Kenya, currently mentions insects in their dietary guidelines.  As more research continues to accumulate on both the nutritional and environmental value of insects as foodstuff, that may change.  In the meantime, have we changed your mind about insects for dinner?  Bon appetit!