Besides being a source of valuable nutrients, studies have found bioactive compounds in insects with characteristics that could have the potential to reduce health risks and strengthen the immune system.
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One of the world’s most common and nutritious food sources is being ignored in the West. However, edible insects have been a part of human diets for centuries, and for most of the world they never left the table. Given the incredible nutritional value packed into the most commonly eaten insects, it’s kind of surprising that eating bugs hasn’t been the centerpiece of a hit fad diet already.
Nutritional values of crickets vs common foods (per 100 grams each)
Crickets are among the most commonly eaten insects on earth and they are rich in a number of vital elements the body human body needs, packing a major nutritional punch into their little bodies.
100 grams of cricket contains more calcium than the same amount of milk, more fiber than 100 grams of green beans, and more than three times the iron present in a comparable amount of spinach.
The buffalo worm, a type of beetle larva, consumed as food in some parts of the world delivers more bioavailable iron to the body, gram per gram, as beef.
Iron uptake measured as ng ferritin per mg protein. (Source: J. Ag. Food Chem./C&EN)
Crickets are more nutritious than any number of popular foods. Comparable serving sizes of crickets have fewer calories and less fat than all of those dishes. And while steak may best them when it comes to total grams of protein, crickets have the superior iron count, all while managing to top pizza and tacos when it comes to protein content.
Besides being a source of valuable nutrients, studies have found bioactive compounds in insects with characteristics that could have the potential to reduce health risks and strengthen the immune system. As with bioactive compounds identified in other foods, health benefits need to be sufficiently documented to be claimed, and studies directly in humans are generally a prerequisite. More research into the impact of potentially bioactive compounds identified in insects on human health is required.
Several studies have reported antioxidant activity in insect spcies. Antioxidants, in principle, have the potential to prevent molecular damage in the human body, and foods rich in antioxidants have been considered potentially beneficial in the prevention of cardiovascular and other diseases. However, the evidence that antioxidant activity in foods translates directly into a positive health impact in humans is weak, primarily because the activity is likely to change during the digestive and metabolic processes.
High blood pressure is one of the leading preventable risk factors for premature death and disability worldwide, affecting up to one third of the world’s population. Angiotensin is a peptide hormone that causes vasoconstriction and a subsequent increase in blood pressure. An enzyme converts the hormone angiotensin I to the active vasoconstrictor angiotensin II.
As a result, the angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) causes blood vessels to constrict, which is why ACE inhibitors are used as pharmaceutical drugs for the treatment of cardiovascular diseases. ACE inhibitory activity is widely distributed in mammalian tissues, and has also been identified in a number of insects. Species such as wax moth Galleria mellonella, the yellow mealworm Tenebrio molitor and the silkworm Bombyx mori have been found to have levels of ACE inhibitory activity comparable with other food sources.
While lifestyle change is the primary approach to weight control, there are also pharmacological agents identified that can help weight loss through different physiological pathways. At present, there are no such agents identified in edible insects that have been tested in humans. Studies in mice models have indicated bioactive compounds in insects, which may be effective in weight control. One study showed that the daily intake of yellow mealworm larvae powder by obese mice attenuated body weight gain by reducing lipid accumulation and triglyceride content in adipocytes, thus indicating the potential of a bioactive compound to induce weight loss.
Edible insects all use the fibrous material chitin to form the structure of their exoskeletons. Chitin can be found in the exoskeleton of insects, the shells of crustaceans, and even in the wing scales of a butterfly!
There are different modified versions of chitin that are utilized throughout the insect world that make it possible to have the strong exoskeleton of a beetle for example, and also be used to create the flexible bodies seen in caterpillars.
For those that are interested in entomophagy and eating insects, the chitin is also a great source of valuable fiber and a prebiotic too. Edible insects as a roasted snack or protein powder are a great source of nutrients and protein. However they are also a source of beneficial fiber from the chitin that is a great prebiotic for gut health. In a recent study on the consumption of edible insects, the researchers found almost a 6x increase of probiotic bacterium, Bifidobacterium animalis, and may systemic inflammation too. The prebiotics available from the chitin in edible insects, provide nutrition for probiotics and are one of the benefits of chitin for gut microbiology. Read more about the study in depth here.
Chitin also provides an available source of dietary fiber. The dietary fiber is good for your digestive health and helps to keep you feeling full longer, and has also been found to help to improve cholesterol and blood sugar levels.
Insect meals contain antimicrobial peptides and chitin that can cause a modification in the microbiota of the gastrointestinal tract. insect meals may play a crucial role not only in the absorption of nutrients but also in the gastrointestinal tract immunity, avoiding the colonisation of pathogenic microorganisms in the gastrointestinal tract.
Vitamin B12 is synthesized by certain bacteria and algae and accumulates in meat, milk and other animal-source food, as the only natural food source of the functioning of the brain and nervous system and in the formation of red blood cells. Few insects have been analysed for vitamin B12. So far, several species, among them house cricket Acheta domesticus, yellow mealworm T. molitor, wax moth G. mellonella, and silkworm B. mori. The contents range from less than 0.5 μg/100 fresh weight in mealworm and silkworm, to more than 8 μg/100 g fresh weight in house cricket, indicating in particular crickets as a promising source of vitamin B12.