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The Best Insects To Eat

The best insects to eat are from three species: At least three insects: crickets, honeybees, and mealworms

To compile a list of best insects to eat you need to consider three aspects: 1) Is it an edible insect species (most are not). 2) What are its nutritional values. 3) How does it taste.

The first two aspects are objectively determined by scientists. The third one is a personal preference that will differ from person to person, as is the case with all foods.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), there a 2,100 species of edible insects worldwide (out of a total of an estimated 900 thousand). Researchers reckon that insects form part of the traditional diets of at least 2 billion people, who mostly live in Asia, Africa and South America and a handful of countries in Europe.

The best insects to eat are from three species: At least three insects – crickets, honeybees, and mealworms – have at least the same if not higher nutritional value than the commonly consumed meats like beef and chicken, and not a single comparison shows insects to be nutritionally inferior to meat. (Source: European Journal of Clinical Nutrition (2016) 285 – 291).

The Most Commonly Consumed Insects

Globally, the most eaten insects by humans are

  • Beetles (31%)
  • Caterpillars (17%)
  • Bees, wasps, and ants (15%)
  • Grasshoppers, locusts, and crickets (14%)
  • Cicadas, leafhoppers, planthoppers, scale insects and true bugs (11%)
  • Termites (3%)
  • Others (dragonflies, flies, and others – 9%)
The number of recorded edible insect species per group in the world
Number of recorded insect species per group in the world (Source: FAO. 2021. Looking at edible insects from a food safety perspective. Challenges and opportunities for the sector. Rome. https://doi.org/10.4060/cb4094en)

Until recently edible insects have been collected mainly from the wild and even today, only about 2% of known edible insect species are farmed.

Historically, many cultures in different parts of the world have made insects a part of their diets. The earliest recorded accounts of people eating insects date to the eighth century BCE in the Middle East.

Beware - Not All Insects Are Edible

A major issue is the lack of scientific data on the nutritional value of most insect species. The six insects listed above are fairly well studied and there is data on their mineral and vitamin content. But if you were to eat any of the other species you wouldn’t be quite sure what you put in your mouth. This might be OK in survival situations in the wild but not as a basis for commercial insect farming.

According to researchers at the University of Wageningen (source), 2,100 insect species are commonly consumed as a food source in many regions of the world. However, there are only six common edible insect species that at present are commercially farmed, including:

cricket
Crickets (Acheta domesticus) and grasshoppers

The House cricket is globally distributed primarily due to human activity, much like the house fly. This species can be mass produced and resulting adults used to produce protein, which has gained mass attention for its promise for development of products (e.g., cricket flour) consumed by humans and other animals, including pets. The house cricket is hemimetabolous (incomplete metamorphosis) with an egg, nymph, and adult stage. Completion of the life cycle can vary depending on conditions, but typically two to three months are needed.

European honey bee
Honeybee (Apis Mellifera)

The European honeybee is the well-established pollinator of many plants throughout the western world. The insect lives in a cooperative group in which usually one female and several males are reproductively active. The lifecycle of the honeybee is complete with an egg, larva, pupa, and adult. Completing the lifecycle takes approximately three weeks, depending on conditions. Besides pollination, honey production is a key aspect of the honeybee. A much lesser known aspect of honeybee production is the use of its immatures as human food.

domestic silk worm
Domestic silkworm (Bombyx mori)

Silkworm is the immature stage of the silk moth. This species has a complete lifecycle with an egg, larva, pupa, and adult stage. Its lifecycle is approximately eight weeks depending on conditions. Silkworm represents one of the few insect species to have been domesticated for human use, mostly silk production. While the silk is a valuable commodity for the textile industry, the pupae remaining after harvesting the silk is used as human food.

Mopane caterpillar
Mopane caterpillar (Imbrasia belina)

Mopane caterpillar (so called because its feeds on the leaves of the mopane tree) can be found throughout the southern regions of Africa. The caterpillars are high in protein similar to soybean (around 35%) and are considered an important source of food for the people in this region.

African palm weevil
African palm weevil (Rhynchoporus phoenicis)

African palm weevil is distributed throughout the tropical regions of Africa, where it is considered a pest due to its infestation of palm trees. This species has a complete lifecycle with an egg, larva, pupa, and adult stage. Its larvae is harvested and used as food. Furthermore, methods have been developed for mass production of this beetle in culture.

yellow mealworm
Yellow mealworm (Tenebrio molitor)

Yellow mealworm has a complete lifecycle with an egg, larva, pupa, and adult stage. Originally viewed as a pest, the ability to mass-produce this species has resulted in it now being viewed as beneficial due to the use of its larvae as animal feed and for human consumption. The larvae are high in protein and fat and can be sold alive or dried. They are also processed as food items (seets, flour) or used to produce backed goods.

Nutritional Values

Insects are healthy, nutritious alternatives to mainstream staples such as chicken, pork, beef and even fish. What’s more, they have a much smaller ecological footprint than livestock.

A word of caution, though: Insects vary widely between species in terms of nutrient content.

Many insects are an excellent nutritional food source with regard to fat and protein, and they have been found to be a rich source of vitamins and minerals, especially iron and zinc. The caloric and nutrient content of insects can vary widely from species to species and also between wild and farmed insects.

Furthermore, insect processing methods affects their nutrient potential, for instance changes in the protein digestibility and the vitamin content.

nutritional values comparing staple meats to insects

In addition to whole insects, that are sold either fresh or frozen, protein powders made predominantly from crickets are becoming increasingly popular. They are called the ‘Gateway bug’ for Western consumers because they look just like regular flour and have no discernible taste.

The Taste Factor

It appears someone went to the effort of food tasting the most popular edible insects. This is what she came up with:

  • Raw termites taste like pineapple and cooked termites have a delicate, vegetable flavor.
  • Grubs (which are larvae) of palm weevils taste like beef bone marrow. 
  • Fried agave worms (canned in Mexico) taste like sunflower seeds. 
  • Diving beetles (available in Chinatown in San Francisco) taste something like clams. 
  • Fried grasshoppers taste like sardines. 
  • French-fried ants (imported from Colombia) taste like beef jerky. 
  • A praying mantis, fried over an open fire, tastes like shrimp and raw mushrooms. 
  • Fried wax moth larvae taste like corn puffs or potato chips. 
  • Fried spiders taste like nuts. 
  • Fried baby bees taste like smoked fish or oysters.

(Source: Invisible Bugs and Other Creepy Creatures That Live With You)