It is estimated that by 2050, we will need 50% more food to ensure the survival of humans on a global scale. A major challenge, since our current model based on intensive livestock farming is increasingly singled out for its devastating impact on the climate and our ecosystems. Could energy-efficient and low-polluting alternative protein sources such as insects prove to be an interesting solution?
Although it is almost non-existent in rich countries, the use of insects for food (entomophagy) is a very common practice on a global scale. 2 billion people who consume it regularly. These feeding habits are not so surprising considering that insects have long been part of mammalian diets.
A recent analysis indicates that the first eutherians (placental mammals) which appeared after the extinction of the Cretaceous dinosaurs already possessed genes coding for enzymes (chitinases) specialized in the digestion of the skeleton, rich in chitin, of insects. Closer to home, we have known for a long time that even if they are mainly vegetarians, the great apes, with whom we share 98% of our genes, consume a wide variety of insects (termites, ants, bees), larvae and of verse.
Insects: a particular richness in vitamin B12
One of the interesting particularities of these insects is to contain a lot of vitamin B12, an essential vitamin found exclusively in
animal products (the B12 content of some insects is up to 10 times higher than that of beef). We can therefore think that this consumption of insects contributed to ensuring an adequate intake of vitamin B12 during the first stages of the evolution of the human species, before meat became part of our diet. It could also be an interesting source of B12 for vegans who do not consume any animal products and are therefore at risk of having B12 deficiencies. Unfortunately, a recent study reports that vegans are generally much more resistant to consuming insects than omnivores or vegetarians, and therefore these people must turn to supplements to obtain adequate B12 intake.
More vitamins and minerals than meat from farmed animals
In addition to vitamin B12, studies that have looked at the nutritional content of insects indicate that they compare favorably to meats commonly consumed by the population. For example, compared to beef, pork, and chicken, insects in general have similar calorie, protein, and fat content, and higher amounts of calcium, iron, and vitamins A, C, and B2 (riboflavin). In some species like the mopane worm (a cousin of the silkworm that is considered a delicacy in South Africa), the protein content can even reach 35g per 100g, almost twice the amount found in beef.
Even our intestinal bacteria like
Insects also contain a lot of fiber and a recent study suggests that this high content could positively influence colon health. In this study, the volunteers (20 people in each group) consumed a lunch consisting of a muffin and a chocolate milk with or without 25 g of cricket powder for 14 days, after which blood and stool samples were taken. were collected and analyzed. The researchers observed that the consumption of cricket powder caused a significant increase (almost 6 times) in the levels of the probiotic bacterium Bifidobacterium animalis in the colon and was also associated with a reduction in blood levels of TNF-a, a inflammatory molecule. It therefore appears that consuming cricket may benefit the gut microbiome and reduce systemic inflammation, both of which are positive health effects.
Limit environmental damage by switching to insects
There are obviously significant cultural barriers to the consumption of whole insects or larvae. On the other hand, several products based on insect meal (pasta and chocolate bars, among others) have begun to emerge and it is likely that these foods are easier to integrate into Western eating habits. One thing is certain, it is now clearly established that it is absolutely necessary to reduce the consumption of red meat if we hope to limit the environmental damage resulting from intensive farming. Without being the only factor that can contribute to this reduction in damage, the production of insects certainly represents an interesting alternative because of its low cost, its high yield of nutrients and its very low ecological footprint.
So are you ready?
Emerling CA et al. Chitinase genes (CHIAs) provide genomic footprints of a post-Cretaceous dietary radiation in placental mammals. Science Adv. 2018; 4: eaar6478.
Elorinne A et al. Insect consumption attitudes among vegans, non-vegan vegetarians, and omnivores. Nutrients, published online January 29, 2019.
Voelker R. Can insects compete with beef, poultry as nutritional powerhouses? JAMA, 2019.
Stull VJ et al. Impact of edible cricket consumption on gut microbiota in healthy adults, a double-blind, randomized crossover trial. Science. Rep. 2018; 8:10762.