Thinking about eating cricket chips or using earthworm flour to cook up a batch of brownies might not seem appetizing to some, but restaurants, food producers and even agricultural powerhouses in the US are using insects of all sorts to up the ante on both health and sustainability in the food industry.
Behind the trend
While humans have been consuming insects for centuries, especially in non-Western cultures, the practice has become more mainstream in recent years thanks to more adventurous palates, a quest for healthy alternatives and a desire to eat more sustainably. Entomophagy, as it’s known, has far-reaching benefits that clearly appeal to today’s consumers.
"Edible insects are not only abundant in numbers, but are cost-effective and have considerable health benefits," dietitian Kajsa Ernestam told INSIDER. "Insects are nutritionally rich, yet very low in calories, which is thought to help combat obesity and related diseases."
In fact, a 2018 study from the University of Madison-Wisconsin found that subjects who consumed muffins and nutritional shakes made with dried, roasted cricket powder for breakfast experienced positive effects on gut microbiota. Study researchers concluded that “eating crickets may improve gut health and reduce systemic inflammation.”
On the sustainability side, insects have a high food conversion rate, meaning they need far less feed to produce than cattle, sheep, pigs and broiler chicken while offering the same amount of protein. Insects can also be grown on organic waste and emit fewer greenhouse gases than standard livestock.
What’s on the menu?
Edible insects are taking several forms in the food and beverage industry. Chirps, a company seen on the television show Shark Tank, produces a range of products packed with protein powder, from chips to protein powder and cookie mix. Similarly, Exo makes makes energy and protein bars from recipes developed by world-renowned chefs, and also sells cricket flour and whole roasted crickets.
Meanwhile, restaurants throughout the US have begun putting insects on the menu. Chef Jose Andres offers a chapulines, or grasshopper, taco at his Oyamel Cocina Mexicana restaurant in Washington, D.C., while Sushi Mazi in Portland, Ore., makes a grasshopper sushi roll. Bug Appetit at the Audubon Nature Institute in New Orleans even serves dishes such as cricket king cake.
The future of edible insects
Due to the environmental implications of using insects to produce food, many believe this is a trend that will continue to grow legs. Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis is currently working with several other universities to open a Center for Insects as Feed and Food to suss out major questions and issues regarding raising insects for consumption.
"If what’s happening with the plant protein market is any indication, there’s such a huge need for the world to have sustainable agriculture to increase the amount of protein that is produced without destroying the environment," IUPUI associate professor Christine Picard told the Indy Star.
On the agricultural side, insects are increasingly being used by the food industry as the basis for animal feed, with both startups and large companies alike getting involved. Thanks to the relatively high protein content, insect meal could replace between 25% and 100% of soymeal or fishmeal in animal feed, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization.
Cargill recently partnered with InnovaFeed to market fish feed made with insect protein. The feed includes oil and protein that are extracted from black soldier fly larvae, which in the end helps lower CO2 emissions and create more sustainable aquaculture.
“We recognize that the planet has finite resources,” said Cargill’s Pilar Cruz in a press release. “It is our job to find innovative feed options for our customers that protect the planet and support sustainable protein production.”
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