Entomophagy is the practice of eating insects as a food source. Over 1000 species of insects are eaten around the world by traditional human societies in Africa, the Americas and Australasia. The Food and Agricultural Organisation estimated that two billion of the worlds population regularly dine on insects.
When we hear the expression hunter-gatherer we immediately think of meat, seafood, vegetables, fruits, berries, seeds and nuts. Add insects to that list. Insects are comparable to animal foods in their nutritional value. There are 14,000 year-old paintings on cave walls in Spain illustrating honey gathering and termite collection.
You might head to Kenya or South Africa to see the big five. The insect world has a Big Five too, but these all played a role in our survival. The Big Five that we and other primates have enjoyed through evolution are:
Hymenoptera (ants, bees, wasps - include honey)
Lepidoptera (butterflies, moths - think also caterpillars)
Orthoptera (locusts, crickets)
Although we have eaten flies and aphids, the Big Five are usually easier to catch or appear periodically in vast numbers, such as moths, caterpillars and locusts. Many bees do sting, but the honey pot pay-off has made it worthwhile for both humans and chimpanzees.
Crickets tickle when they go down the throat
I know, because I enjoyed them at a cricket farm in Hoi An, in central Vietnam. The crickets were raised by a three-war veteran and his son. His daughter individually de-gutted the crickets, taking them up to premium quality. Fried in oil and garlic they made a crunchy and tasty snack. You just have to first skip through that psychological checkpoint many of us have.
Entomophagy tends to include non-insects like arachnids (eg tarantulas) and myriapods (eg centipedes). Yeah, I know, I think it would take more than a psychological warm-up to send them down my gullet.
Delicious and nutritious
Insects have been analysed for their nutrient content. On average, cockroaches are 57% protein and 30% fat based on a dry weight, a similar protein and fat content to other insects such as flies (50% protein; 23% fat), ants (47%; 25%), caterpillars (45%; 28%) and crickets (61%; 13%), according to a review of 236 edible insects (Rumpold 2013).
Their protein provides all the essential amino acids needed for humans, while the fat is, in very general terms, one third saturated fats, and two thirds a mix of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids. A decent meal of insects could give you 2100 kJs/500 Cals, which is pretty good as a food source when living off the land.
Insects are about 10% fibre, mainly in the form of chitin, suspected to help control blood cholesterol. Chitin gives insects their crunchiness - thats their exoskeleton. They are also an excellent source of essential minerals like iron and zinc, along with B vitamins.
What does it all mean?
As westernised humans overcome their food prejudices and continue to explore new foods and food trends there is a good chance that you will have the opportunity to nibble on insects. Enjoy the experience. In tough times there is no doubt that many people around the globe will be relying on insect nutrition because this food source reproduces rapidly, efficiently converts feed to growth, take little space and arent fussy eaters.
Technically insects belong in the animal kingdom, so I wonder if insects will be popular with vegetarians?
References: 1. Rumpold BA, Schluter OK. Nutritional composition and safety aspects of edible insects. Molecular Nutrition & Food Research 2013; 57: 802-823
McGrew WC. The other faunivory revisited: Insectivory in human and non-human primates and the evolution of human diet. Journal of Human Evolution 2014
FAO Nutritional Value of Insects for Human Consumption. This excellent, easy to read, review is here. Read this and you will have a new appreciation for insects as food (and the photos are great too).