Edible insects: a major issue for our food future

Eating insects, also known as entomophagy, dates back to the dawn of humanity. However, this practice was lost over time in most Western countries, giving way to a certain distaste for these small invertebrates. Even though they have carved out a place for themselves in the culinary traditions and gastronomic culture of many countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

Things are changing in the West, however. In fact, in recent years, under the impetus of the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations), eating edible insects has become a trend, both in Europe and across the Atlantic. So much so that it is now possible in France to easily buy edible insects (cricket, butterfly caterpillar, beetle, giant water bug, etc.) in stores or on specialized websites.

Close-up on these small invertebrates that will drastically change our eating habits in the next few years.

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Insect consumption in Europe and in the world

Eaten raw or cooked, whole or ground, edible insects supplement the diet of 2.5 billion entomophagous people worldwide. The consumption of insects, also called entomophagy, is indeed a common practice in many countries of Asia (Thailand at the top of the list), Africa and Central America.

Protein cereal bars, earthworm pesto, cricket cookies… In the United States, insect-based food products are a trend. The crickets and the tenebrion are the most consumed.

In Europe, edible insects are also making their way into people’s eating habits. And it is the crickets that are popular on the Old Continent.

In all cases, the trigger was the 2013 publication of an FAO report, “Edible Insects: Prospects for Food Security and Feed.” This document indicates, among other things, that global food production will have to be increased by 70% in 2050, in order to feed the 9 billion or so people on our planet.

To achieve this goal, the FAO advocates the use of edible insects as an alternative to meat. The production of the latter is too greedy in natural resources (energy, water, cereals, etc.).

Note that the UN and the FAO began their campaign to raise awareness among Westerners in favor of entomophagy in 2008. As for the European Union, it has invested 3 million euros in research and promotion of this type of food in 2011.

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The nutritional benefits of insects

Tasty (once you get past the preconceived notions), edible insects seem to have everything going for them, especially in terms of nutritional value and ecological footprint, compared to meat, whose production is too energy-intensive. The international scientific community believes that they could be THE solution to feed humanity in a healthy and sustainable way.

In terms of nutritional intake, edible insects contain essential nutrients, including :

  • Protein: they contain more protein than meat. Thus, the cricket has 3 times more than beef. And 20 grams of cooked crickets correspond to the energy value (protein plus fat) of a 110 g steak.
  • Vitamins: B1, B2, B3, C, D, etc.
  • Minerals: calcium, magnesium, manganese, iron, phosphorus zinc, etc.
  • Essential fatty acids: linoleic acid, etc.
  • A very good fiber content: insects contain more fiber than meat, as well as legumes.
  • Omega-3 and omega-6.

Moreover, insects are relatively low in saturated fatty acids and cholesterol. And their lipid content can vary from 4 to 77%.

If you are on a diet, you may want to include grasshopper meat, crickets or ants in your diet. Because these insects have lipid levels below 5%.

And for people suffering from malnutrition, they are advised to eat termites, mealworms and other larvae.

Note: the nutritional composition of insects varies greatly from one species to another. According to some studies, the food they are given may influence their nutritional profile.

The different uses of insects

Insects are harvested in the wild (especially in forests), or mass-bred on farms for various reasons. These can be:

  • Food.
  • Economic (e.g. beekeeping for honey and its derivatives, sericulture for silk).
  • Agricultural (insect breeding for crop protection).
  • Medical (maggot therapy).
  • Scientific research (plant breeding and chemical control).
  • Educational and recreational (zoos and butterfly gardens).
  • Playful (insect collection, then we speak rather of entomology).

The insect, this indispensable

Besides being an excellent food for both humans and animals, and in addition to the other uses mentioned above, insects also play a fundamental role in maintaining the balance of nature.

They participate in:

  • To the fertilization of soils and their contribution in natural fertilizers.
  • To bioconversion: decomposition of animal excrement and recycling of organic waste (by flies, beetles, etc.).
  • Controlling pests through natural biological control.
  • To plant reproduction, thanks to the pollination of plants (by bees, bumblebees, etc.), thus ensuring a major role in the production of fruits and vegetables in the world.
  • To biodiversity.

Note that ants also practice entomoculture or insect breeding. They raise hemipterans (aphids, mealy bugs, stink bugs) to harvest their sweet honeydew and also to eat them.

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The most consumed species in the world

Of the 1.3 million species of insects currently recorded worldwide (out of an estimated total of between 5 and 80 million possible species), just over 2,100 species (2017 figures) are considered edible by the Entomophagy Laboratory at Wageningen University (Netherlands). This institution regularly publishes a world list of edible insects.

The main groups of small invertebrate species most consumed in the world, according to the FAO, are the following, in descending order in terms of quantity consumed:

  • Beetles (31%): beetles.
  • Lepidoptera (18%): butterfly caterpillars.
  • Hymenoptera (14%): bees, wasps and ants.
  • Orthopterans (13%): grasshoppers, crickets and crickets.
  • Hemipterans (10%): cicadas, leafhoppers, mealybugs and bugs.
  • Isopterans (3%): termites.
  • Odonates (3%): dragonflies.
  • Diptera (2%): flies.
  • Other (6%).

Good to know: The French currently consume 12 tons of edible insects per year. As entomophagic gastronomy becomes trendy, this number is constantly increasing.

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