Food fads come and go all the time with insects regularly making novelty appearances as shock snacks on specialist websites in the west.
However, for much of the world’s population bugs constitute a major part of their staple diet and not just through necessity but often by choice.
Cricket protein is becoming more common and we thought it was time to see whether this trend was just another fad or whether it offers a serious alternative to other food forms.
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What is Entomophagy?
Quite simply, entomophagy is the practice of eating insects and is something that around a quarter of the world’s population does as a matter of course each and every day.
Yes, for around 2 billion people, insects are a part of a daily diet and constitute their main source of protein. And insects are an amazingly lean source of protein, with crickets being formed of around 65% protein (other insects can pack a more powerful 80%).
In some cultures, insects are a delicacy and it is really just the western world that cringes at the thought of eating ‘bugs’. To put it another way, four out of five nations eat insects and, in those countries, around 2000 species of insects are considered food including beetles, weevils, mealworms and crickets. In some places, even spiders are eaten in large quantities, including tarantulas.
One of the benefits of eating insects is that they are often swarm creatures and large quantities can be harvested quite easily thus providing sufficient food for a good meal on a single forage.
Insects as Food: A Brief History
Eating insects isn’t a new fad and nor did it start with TV shows like ‘Fear Factor’ or ‘I’m a Celebrity’.
In fact, humans have been eating insects as food since the prehistoric ages. From Asia to Africa, Australia to parts of Europe, over 1000 species of insects are eaten across the modern world.
There is evidence to suggest that, before crop farming and hunting changed the way we eat, human diets contained a good deal of insects with coprolites found in Mexican caves containing lice, ticks and beetle larvae.
When you think about it, it makes perfect sense. As a species, many primates are insectivorous to some degree. Being omnivorous, we get our food where we can get it and insects are truly no different to eating a plant or another animal; bird, mammal or fish.
In many cultures, insects have been seen as delicacies; from the ancient Greeks who ate cicadas to modern China where roasted bee larvae can be found in many street markets.
It seems that for the most part, humans have eaten insects throughout history either by preference, necessity or as a treat. In the western world, the rise of industrial farming may have influenced the way we felt about insects in general as their presence in our crops changed them from source of food to a type of pest.
Today, the introduction of insects into the western world as a food source is largely seen as a novelty although progress in the last decade has seen several successful start-ups. Projects include cricket protein being used as a substitute in traditional baked goods and as a protein bar.
The Benefits of Cricket Protein
Cricket flour, known as cricket powder, is derived from ground up dried crickets and can be used in place of normal flour to create a range of food stuffs, including muffins, crackers and smoothies. As crickets are mainly composed of protein, the resultant flour is lower in dietary fiber and starch making it a healthy, high-protein alternative to wheat or gluten free flour.
Crickets (and other insects) are not only high in protein but also essential vitamins like B12, minerals like calcium, amino acids and healthy fats like Omega 3 and 6 as well as fiber.
Nutritional Content of Cricket: Comparison
When compared to other sources of protein, crickets come out much lower in fat than ground beef and lower in calories than skinless chicken breasts (figures are per 100g serving).
|Nutritional Value||Crickets||Ground Beef||Skinless Chicken Breast|
As well as protein and fat, the nutritional content of crickets is made up of:
- Carbohydrates, 5.1g
- Calcium , 75.8mg
- Phosphorous, 185.3mg
- Iron, 9.5mg
- Thiamin, 0.36mg
- Riboflavin, 1.09mg
- Niacin, 3.10mg
With 15 times more iron than spinach and as much vitamin B12 as salmon, cricket protein is becoming a widely recognised source of valuable nutrition that can not only offer serious health benefits but also food sustainability and security.
Nutritionally, crickets have slightly less protein than an equivalent amount of soy; however, crickets are a far more digestible form of protein meaning we absorb more nutrients.
And, when it comes to iron, insects have one of the highest proportional contents of bioavailable iron of any food making it a potential solution to the world’s biggest nutritional problem; iron deficiency.
Cricket Protein: Food Security and Sustainability
With the world’s population expected to reach 9 billion by 2050 it is imperative that we find a way to sustain this level of demand for what are currently limited food resources. Insects are a cheap and easy way to provide adequate nutrition for a growing population. Not only that but cricket farming can also provide livelihoods for food farmers.
Insect farming uses less land and precious water, produces less CO2 and ammonia and does not contribute nitrification to the soil through animal waste.
A far more sustainable way to produce protein, insects reproduce more quickly than livestock making them 20 times more efficient than the equivalent quantities of beef. Insects can also offer a way to recycle organic waste as they can be fed using vegetable peelings and other materials.
When it comes to water, another valuable resource, you can produce 71g of protein from crickets using 100 gallons of water compared with just 6g of beef, 13g of corn, 19g of chicken or even 63g of soy. In areas of the world where water resources are scarce, cricket protein may not just make commercial and ecological sense but could offer the only viable way to support its human population growth.
Meeting the growing demand for food is one element of future food security and sustainability but many proponents of entomophagy are championing the replacement of traditional cattle, chicken and pig farming with insects for other reasons. The benefits are obvious with animal agriculture making a significant contribution to climate change, deforestation, air, land and water pollution, a change to insect farming could offer many environmental rewards.
The Cricket Protein Bar
Chapul, an American company, introduced the first cricket protein bar in 2012. Part of a growing food revolution intended to boost the popularity of crickets as food in the western world, Chapul manufacturer a simple gourmet cricket protein bar alongside basic cricket protein powder. Available in four different flavors, each bar contains the protein powder from approximately 25-30 crickets. Flavors currently being marketed are:
- Chaco: Peanut butter and chocolate
- Aztec: Dark chocolate, coffee and cayenne
- Thai: Coconut, ginger and lime
- Matcha: Green tea and banana
Bars are sold in packs of 12 and cost $36.00 per pack. They offer a convenient way to travel light whilst stocking up on essential protein and are a popular choice for people who are travelling, camping or working out. Convenient and easy but stacked with important nutrition, the company are doing good business.
What do Crickets Taste Like?
And so, we come to the 64 million dollar question; what do crickets taste like?
Eaten whole, many people report crickets to have a subtle nutty flavor that isn’t unlike popcorn . Some people liken it more to roasted sunflower or hemp seeds. The texture of a whole cricket is perhaps what puts many people off; all those legs, wing cases and head parts. However, when ground into flour and used as an ingredient, there would be no way of discerning its taste. Just like you don’t taste flour in brownies, sauces and cakes, cricket flour can be added, in place of regular flour or as an additional component. A versatile and nutritious supplement, cricket protein is an easy way to add iron to a diet deficient in this essential mineral and boost your protein intake.
What About the Down Sides?
With all this good news, why aren’t more people eating crickets and are there any side effects?
Well, the principle reason that you don’t see crickets on the supermarket shelves is one of cultural taboo and westerners still consider insects to have an ‘ick’ factor.
This attitude is deeply ingrained and could take several generations to change but change is happening.
If you consider many of the foods available in grocery stores today that were unavailable several decades ago you can see how quickly and readily the general population is to adapt.
Foods like offal have waxed and waned in fashion and for those areas of the country that were not raised by the sea, prawns and lobsters would once have been considered repulsive. An open mind is all that is needed to accept that crickets and cricket flour has a place in the future of food.
As for side effects, yes there are several species of insects that we don’t eat due to their toxicity but crickets are not one them. The only apparent dangers with crickets are the fact they, as arthropods, are closely correlated with shellfish.
This can make those people who have shellfish allergies susceptible to an adverse reaction.
For the rest of us, there really is no excuse not to try this cheap, healthy and nutritious alternative protein source.
Featured image via Pixabay.