Why Eat Insects?

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.

Why Eat Insects? We Explain The Top Reasons

Overall, insects have advantages in nutritional value and health benefits. Their nutritional compositions are actually quite similar to those of the traditional animal foods. They have enormous potential as a source of nutrients and active substances not only for human, but also for livestock and aquaculture. Insects at all life stages are rich sources of animal protein.

Edible insects usually contain more crude protein compared with conventional meat, though their amino acid compositions are usually analogous. As food, they can provide essential amino acids at an ideal level, which are generally 76 to 96% digestible.

Consuming insects wisely and healthily has become a trendy solution to poverty. Edible insects are playing an important role in various food systems. In fact, they have been a vital source of essential nutrients in many developing regions.

The practice of eating insects is known as entomophagy. Entomophagy is heavily influenced by cultural and religious practices, and of the world’s 900,000 known insect species, only 2,100 are commonly consumed as a food source in many regions of the world. According to estimates, more than 2 billion people worldwide eat insects every day. For many people it is the only available meat meal rich in protein, sugars and vitamins.

world map with number of insect species that are eaten by region

The most popular edible insects are beetles, caterpillars, bees, wasps and ants, crickets, grasshoppers, locusts and cicadas. Of course, these insects do not all taste the same. Some taste nutty, some fruity, some…

In some regions of Asia, for example Vietnam, Laos or Thailand, insects are the main source of meat for the poor part of society. You can get almost anything at markets and in restaurants. These are mainly large insects such as grasshoppers, butterfly larvae, large bugs, because the larger the piece of meat, the better.

Generally, insect meat is rich in amino acids, fats, sugars, and has a high concentration of vitamins B and K (wasps have a much higher concentration of vitamins than some fruits). Many insects have a very high content of fats and proteins that is several times higher than in chicken meat – butterflies, beetles and even ordinary flies are 70-80 percent protein.

The Facts About Eating Insects

Globally, the most common insects consumed are beetles (31%). This is not surprising given that the group contains about 40% of all known insect species. The consumption of caterpillars, especially popular in sub-Saharan Africa, is estimated at 18%. Bees, wasps and ants come in third at 14% (these insects are especially common in Latin America). Read more: Which Insects are Edible

Edible Insect Species Worldwide
Number of recorded edible insect species in the world (by group)

Insects as food and feed can only make a significant difference if they are mass-produced. This is done already in Thailand where 20,000 domestic cricket farms produce an average of 7,500 metric tons of insects a year.

The nutritional composition of edible insects is difficult to generalize, given that more than 2,100 different species are eaten. However, edible insects can essentially be viewed as an animal-source food – like meat, fish, eggs and milk – which can contribute valuable protein, fat and important micronutrients to humans as a part of a varied diet.

In general, the crude protein content of insects ranges from 40 to 75% on dry weight basis, largely depending on species and stage in their life cycle, with beneficial amino acid profile, and a variable fat content (reported up to >50% in some species).

The nutritional quality of fat, in terms of the composition of the fatty acids, is highly variable between insect species and also changes depending on what the insects have eaten. Generally, fat in insects is characterised as comparable to fat in poultry and fish, but likely to contain more of the desired unsaturated fatty acids, either monounsaturated or the more healthy polyunsaturated fatty acids.

Many insect species contain high levels of iron and zinc, though this is highly variable between samples. In Africa, in particular the mopane caterpillar Imbrasia belina and various species of termites contain high levels of these minerals. In vitro studies of the bioavailability of zinc and iron in grasshoppers, crickets, and mealworms have shown promising results, but also variation between the species.

The Main Reasons for Eating Insects

icon health

Improve Human Health

  1. Insects are healthy, nutritious alternatives to mainstream staples such as chicken, pork, beef and even fish
  2. Many insects are rich in protein and good fats and high in calcium, iron and zinc
  3. Insects already form a traditional part of many regional and national diets
icon environment

Environment – positively impact climate change and address global resource constraints

  1. Insects promoted as food emit considerably fewer greenhouse gases than most livestock (methane, for instance, is produced by only a few insect groups, such as termites and cockroaches)
  2. Insect rearing is not necessarily a land-based activity and does not require land-clearing to expand production. Feed is the major requirement for land
  3. The ammonia emissions associated with insect rearing are also far lower than those linked to conventional livestock, such as pigs
  4. Because they are cold-blooded, insects are very efficient at converting feed into protein (crickets, for example, need 12 times less feed than cattle, four times less feed than sheep, and half as much feed as pigs and broiler chickens to produce the same amount of protein
  5. Insects can be fed on organic waste streams

Livelihood – Improve living conditions in developing countries

  1. Insect harvesting/rearing is a low-tech, low-capital investment option that offers entry even to the poorest sections of society, such as women and the landless
  2. Mini livestock offer livelihood opportunities for both urban and rural people
  3. Insect rearing can be low-tech or very sophisticated, depending on the level of investments

Eating Insects is Healthy

The nutritional composition of edible insects is difficult to generalise, given that more than 2,100 different species are eaten. However, edible insects can essentially be viewed as an animal-source food – like meat, fish, eggs and milk – which can contribute valuable protein, fat and important micronutrients to humans as a part of a varied diet.

In general, the crude protein content of insects ranges from 40 to 75% on dry weight basis, largely depending on species and stage in their life cycle, with beneficial amino acid profile, and a variable fat content (reported up to >50% in some species).

The nutritional quality of fat, in terms of the composition of the fatty acids, is highly variable between insect species and also changes depending on what the insects have eaten. Generally, fat in insects is characterised as comparable to fat in poultry and fish, but likely to contain more of the desired unsaturated fatty acids, either monounsaturated or the more healthy polyunsaturated fatty acids.

Many insect species contain high levels of iron and zinc, though this is highly variable between samples. In Africa, in particular the mopane caterpillar Imbrasia belina and various species of termites contain high levels of these minerals. In vitro studies of the bioavailability of zinc and iron in grasshoppers, crickets, and mealworms have shown promising results, but also variation between the species.

The Huge and Growing Environmental Cost of Eating Animals

Livestock is the world’s largest user of land resources, with grazing land and cropland dedicated to the production of feed representing almost 80 % of all agricultural land. Feed crops are grown in one-third of total cropland, while the total land area occupied by pasture is equivalent to 26 % of the ice-free terrestrial surface. With rising incomes in the developing world, demand for animal products will continue to surge; 74 percent for meat, 58 percent for dairy products and 500 percent for eggs. Meeting increasing demand is a major sustainability challenge.

Environmental footprint of crickets and mealworms compared to conventional farmed animals
Environmental footprint of crickets and mealworms compared to conventional farmed animals. (CSIRO)

Livestock is the world’s largest user of land resources, with grazing land and cropland dedicated to the production of feed representing almost 80 % of all agricultural land. Feed crops are grown in one-third of total cropland, while the total land area occupied by pasture is equivalent to 26 % of the ice-free terrestrial surface. With rising incomes in the developing world, demand for animal products will continue to surge; 74 percent for meat, 58 percent for dairy products and 500 percent for eggs. Meeting increasing demand is a major sustainability challenge.

Clearing of land for feed crop production and expansion of pastures for livestock production has been one of the driving forces behind deforestation. Deforestation causes significant environmental damage, releasing enormous amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and causing the extinction of many animal and plant species each year.

Freshwater is becoming increasingly scarce with the livestock sector accounting for nearly one tenth of global human water use. The livestock sector is probably the largest source of water pollution, contributing to eutrophication, ‘dead’ zones in coastal areas and degradation of coral reefs.

Much of the increased production comes from industrial farms clustered around major urban centres. Such large concentrations of animals close to dense human population often cause considerable pollution problems. The major sources of pollution are animal wastes, antibiotics and hormones, chemicals from tanneries, fertilizers and pesticides used for feedcrops and sediments from eroded pastures.

Livestock rearing is responsible for 18 percent of GHG emissions (CO2 equivalent), a higher share than the transport sector. Among insect species, only cockroaches, termites and scarab beetles produce the greenhouse gas methane.

The Benefits of Farming Insects

The production of insects as a food source is significantly more efficient than that of conventional meat.

conversion rates for animal food
Amount of land, feed and water needed to produce 1 kg of live animal weight and percent of the animal which is edible. (Source: https://doi.org/10.1111/nbu.12291)

Insects being farmed as mini-livestock result in lower emissions of greenhouse gases and ammonia than the production of conventional production animals. A life cycle analysis has only been conducted for mealworms, but it shows that less land area is required compared to conventional livestock. Another environmental benefit is the high feed conversion efficiency (the amount of feed needed to produce one kg of edible body weight) found for insects, probably due to their poikilothermic physiology (meaning that their internal temperature can vary considerably).

Insects can be used as

  • Food
  • Feed (livestock, aquaculture)
  • Supplements (vitamins, drugs)

A variety of insect species is the natural feed source for fish and poultry and can be exploited for this purpose. The amino acids derived from most insects’ protein are superior to those from plant supplements in poultry feed formulation). In addition, various insect species have a higher proportion of protein content compared to conventional fish and soybean meals. Furthermore, their clean feeding habits and their efficient food conversion factor make them a promising commodity to be promoted for feed.

Insect meals can replace 25-100% of soy- or fishmeal depending on the animal species. Some insect species which are considered as feed such as the black soldier fly Hermetia illucens and the domestic house fly Musca domestica can be reared on low-value organic by-products. This is interesting considering that 1.3 billion tons organic by-products are produced globally on an annual basis.

Best Selling Insects

The chapulines (grasshoppers) are one of the most important (and delicious) edible insects in Mexico. The Oaxaca valleys are world recognized for their chapulines with a crunchy and delicate herbal taste.

Bag of Mixed Edible Insects - Grasshoppers, Crickets, Silk Worms and Sago Worms

Roasted Mealworms - Raised in North America and Made in Portland, Oregon

Mixed Critters - Mealworms, Buffalo Worms, crickets and Locusts

Whole Roasted Crickets - Canadian Raised - 113 grams