Eating insects, or entomophagy, is growing in popularity as a sustainable and nutritious food source. While over 2000 species of insects are eaten around the world, not all insects are safe or recommended for human consumption. This article explores different types of edible insects, their nutritional value, and safety considerations.
Why eat insects?
In many parts of the world, insects are a regular part of the diet. Here are some of the benefits of eating insects:
- High in protein, vitamins, and minerals. The nutrient profile of many edible insects is comparable to fish and meat.
- Lower environmental impact than traditional livestock. Insects require less feed, water, and space.
- Abundant and renewable food source. Insects reproduce quickly and can feed off waste streams.
- Good source of healthy fats. Some insects provide essential fatty acids like omega-3s.
- Help promote food security. Insect farming can supplement diets and provide livelihoods.
Commonly consumed insects
While the thought of eating insects can seem strange, many species are perfectly safe and nutritious. Here are some of the most commonly consumed insect types:
Crickets are one of the most popular insects to eat. They can be eaten whole, ground into powder, or made into products like protein bars. Crickets have a nutty taste and are an excellent source of protein.
Mealworms are larval beetles that are easy to farm. Roasted mealworms have a crunchy texture and mild flavor. Mealworm powder can also be used to enrich baked goods and snacks.
Grasshoppers and locusts are eaten in many cultures. They can be cooked, fried, or dried. Grasshoppers taste earthy and provide good fats like omega-3.
Ant larvae and eggs are prized in some cuisines for their buttery, nutty flavor. Leafcutter ants and lemon ants taste like citrus.
Bees and wasps
Bees, wasps, and bee larvae can all be safely eaten. They have a sweet, rich taste somewhat like their honey.
Silk worm pupae
The pupae stage of silkworm development is eaten across Asia. Silk worms have a taste similar to mushrooms or nuts.
Nutritional value of edible insects
Many types of insects provide good nutrition. Here is an overview of the nutritional value of edible insects:
|30-70% of dry weight, comparable to fish and meat
|10-50% of dry weight, both saturated and unsaturated fats
|Chitin provides insoluble fiber
|High in some B vitamins like B12, riboflavin
|High in iron, zinc, copper, magnesium
The specific nutrition varies by insect type. Analysis shows that many insects provide adequate protein, healthy fats, and important micronutrients. Eating insects can be an excellent way to obtain nutrients.
Choosing safe, edible insect species
While many insects are edible, some do pose toxicity risks and should be avoided. Here are some guidelines for choosing safe insect species to eat:
- Avoid brightly colored insects. Vivid colors can be a warning sign.
- Do not eat insects that sting or bite. Some can inject venom.
- Avoid hairy or spiny insects. The small hairs or spines can irritate the throat.
- Only eat insects you can identify. Consuming unidentified insects is risky.
- Avoid eating insects raw. Cooking neutralizes potential pathogens and parasites.
- Do not eat insects found dead. Only eat live, healthy insects.
Research which insects are traditionally consumed in your region or sold for food. Try to purchase insects from regulated, reputable sources. Use caution with wild-harvested insects.
Insects that can bite, sting, or injure should never be eaten. This includes:
While bees, wasps, and ants can be eaten in larval form safely, the adults pose safety risks due to their venomous stingers.
Certain insect species contain toxic compounds and should be avoided, such as:
- Blister beetles
- Jerusalem crickets
- Wheel bugs
- Box elder bugs
Research any unfamiliar insect thoroughly before attempting to eat it. Only consume insects that have a documented history of being safely eaten by humans.
Safe preparation and cooking methods
It’s important to handle and prepare edible insects properly to avoid potential contamination or health risks:
- Freeze or boil insects first to kill any parasites, bacteria, or viruses.
- Remove legs, wings, mouthparts, stingers, spines, or indigestible shells.
- Cook insects to an internal temperature of at least 160°F to kill pathogens.
- Store dried or cooked insects in airtight containers and keep refrigerated.
- Wash fresh insects in cold, soapy water before freezing or cooking.
- Avoid cross-contamination by using separate cooking tools and surfaces.
Common cooking methods for insects include pan frying, baking, boiling, and drying or dehydrating. Spices that pair well with insects include salt, garlic, onion, paprika, curry powder, and chiles.
Purchasing edible insects
If you don’t want to collect your own insects, there are more options than ever to buy edible insects:
- Online – Many insect farms sell dried insects, powders, and snacks online.
- Specialty stores – Some natural foods and gourmet stores stock edible insects.
- Farmers markets – Look for local insect farmers selling fresh or dried insects.
- Asian food markets – Some Asian grocers sell insect products imported from Thailand, China etc.
When purchasing pre-packaged insects, look for reputable brands and check the ingredients list. Avoid products with additives, salt, or preservatives.
Are insects safe to eat raw?
Eating insects raw is not recommended. Raw insects may contain harmful bacteria, viruses, parasites, or toxins. Cooking insects eliminates these potential risks. Freezing, boiling, frying, drying, or roasting all make insects safe to eat.
While some cultures may eat certain soft-bodied larvae raw, this practice requires extensive knowledge. For beginners, thoroughly cooking all insects is strongly advised. Start with cooked insects to get comfortable before considering expanding to raw in the future, while being aware of the additional risks.
Like other novel foods, insects can cause allergic reactions in some people. Allergies to crustaceans like shrimp and lobster may extend to insects. Those with shellfish allergies should exercise caution with exoskeleton-bearing insects.
Start by eating a small amount of any new insect. Stop eating if any food allergy symptoms develop like itching, swelling, or difficulty breathing. People with food allergies should have epinephrine on hand.
Choosing sustainable insect sources
To gain the environmental benefits of entomophagy, it’s important to choose sustainable insect sources. Characteristics of sustainable insect farming include:
- Feeds insects organic waste products instead of grains or soy
- Uses renewable energy like solar panels
- Employs space-efficient vertical farming
- Does not use hormones, antibiotics, or pesticides
- Provides fair working conditions and wages for employees
Finding local insect farms or looking for fair trade certified insect products can help support sustainable practices.
Are insects kosher or halal?
Most insects are considered both kosher and halal, but exceptions exist. Locusts are the only insect explicitly allowed in kosher dietary law. For halal rules, eating insects is permissible though debated by some scholars.
Those who strictly follow kosher or halal diets should research which insect types are acceptable under their interpretation. As when introducing any new food, it’s advisable to start slowly and pay attention to individual reactions.
When prepared properly, certain insects can be a nutritious and eco-friendly food source. Focus on well-researched edible species and always thoroughly cook insects before eating. With some basic precautions, insect eating can offer novel flavors, nutrition, and sustainability benefits.