The most abundant, highest-quality protein on the planet could be scurrying across your kitchen floor.
The thought of eating bugs is probably making your skin crawl. But it shouldn’t. Eating insects is after all, something man has been doing for a long time. In fact, insects were our first source of animal protein and there is pretty good evidence that human evolution was driven by nibbling on termites.
"On an intellectual level, is a bug really all that different from say, a prawn?"
The reason for an initial repulsion is that insects trigger the body’s ‘disgust reaction’, an evolved response to prevent us coming into contact with potential harbourers of disease. Part of the problem for insects (which isn’t faced by various meats or fish) is that in many cases, the product looks exactly like it does in the wild (or on your kitchen floor). Beef, lamb, venison or pork in contrast, have been cleverly named to disguise their origins, helping you get over that mental hurdle. A piece of bloodied, unprepared slab of 'flesh' would be pretty disgusting. A well-cooked steak, not so.
Could insects become our primary source of protein?
Many cultures – primarily in Africa, Asia and South America, already rely on creepy-crawlies as one of their main sources of protein. For that to happen in New Zealand and the rest of the ‘Western World’, we’re going to need to get over that 'yuck factor'.
Growing world populations, water scarcity and a shortage of land mean edible insects are in an industry that has potential to swarm.
In terms of a sustainable business model, bugs have a lot going for them. For starters, they breed like well, rabbits. A female cricket can lay anywhere from 200 to 1000 eggs, with a zippy six-week gestation period. Plus, unlike heavy-hooved livestock, you don’t need acres of grass or mountains of grain to feed them. A report by the UN Food Agriculture Agency found it takes 2.1 kilograms of feed to produce 1kg of edible body weight of bugs. To produce 1kg of beef by comparison, you need 25kg of feed (almost 12 times as much). Insects also don’t mind being treated like battery hens, easing ethical objections. It’s quite easy to raise insects in a way that keeps them happy. They’re not stressed by overcrowding. Crucially, they can also be killed quickly and humanely. Bugs ready for harvesting are euthanised in a freezing chamber.
But the payoff is not just sustainability, perhaps more importantly is the nutrient density. Take crickets, the gateway bug due to the relative ease of manufacturing them. Gram for gram, these summer night songbirds provide more than twice (more than TWICE) the protein of beef. And it’s high quality protein too, containing all 9 amino acids. They also pack five times as much magnesium, and three times as much iron. The reason for their nutritional firepower? Unlike heavy-hooved livestock, you eat the whole bug, feelers to tail. You’re getting a lot of protein from the endoskeleton as they use all the nutrients they consume to make the shell hard on the outside, and that’s what you’re eating. This hard exterior delivers a payload of calcium, iron, vitamin B12, zinc and potassium.
Is Insect Powder the Pure Protein You’ve been looking for?
If crickets are the gateway insect, then powder is the form that’s most likely to go mainstream and start showing up in increasing quantities in biscuits, cakes, energy bars and breakfast cereals.
Can’t see it happening?
It already is and not surprisingly, it's the paleo community that has been one of the first to hop on board the insect bandwagon. People have this preconceived notion that insects are dirty, disgusting and gross. But these insects are bred specifically for people to eat. No different to any food available in a supermarket.
Back in the 80’s many in Kiwis and Aussies were appalled at the prospect of eating raw fish. Now? The lines at sushi bars can stretch around the block. And what about the insects of the ocean; Crabs, prawns and crayfish? These are often served with eyes, legs, tails and tentacles intact. Lobster was even once considered among the least desirable foods one could eat – "a garbage meat fit for only prisoners, apprentices, slaves and children." In many cases, we now consider these delicacies. The reason? We’ve grown accustomed to eating them and all disgust elicitors become a lot less disgusting with exposure. Which is precisely why the future of nutrition could be critters.
Are we set up to return to our original protein source?
Our prehistoric forebears may be celebrated for spearing sabre-tooth tigers and bringing down woolly mammoths, but they were just as likely to be digging about in the soil for bugs. The question is, with all this information; Are you ready to dig in?