The Crickets are Coming! Insect Protein (R)evolution

The Crickets are Coming! Insect Protein (R)evolution

Name a protein source that provides all nine essential amino acids, imposes an incredibly small carbon footprint, can be ready for harvest in just a few short weeks, and is free of antibiotics, pesticides, and chemicals. Stumped? The answer is insect protein.

A Smithsonian Institute source notes that there are about 900,000 different types of insects in the world, but that number is only an estimate. At any given time, there are about 10 quintillion (that’s a 1 with 19 zeroes) in the world. Put another way, there are about 200 million insects for each and every person on the planet. Let’s face it: the insects have the upper edge.

Insect Protein

When I was asked to interview a leading innovator in the revolution of insect protein production and entomophagy (the practice of eating insects by people), I was both intrigued and hesitant. As a veteran vegan for ethical/environmental reasons first and health reasons second, finding ways to provide much needed nourishment for an ever-burgeoning world population via minimal suffering and earthly impact is at the top of my list. Adopting a plant-based diet is one way to work toward this goal. Could insect protein be an answer as well?

Read more about eating insects

According to Jarrod Goldin, B.Sc, DC, of Next Millennium Farms, the answer is an emphatic “yes.” Goldin possesses a clear passion for and knowledge about the current and potential benefits of the use of insect protein for human consumption. Building on his background in health and science as a chiropractor, Goldin explained how his interest in the insect business, ignited by his two brothers’ success with a company called Reptile Feeders, which provides insects for pets and pet stores, and the impending global food crisis led him to the realization that “insects represent a massive solution for food.”

The result was Next Millennium Farms, which raises insects for the human dinner table. All the farming, production, and inspection standards are those used by the human food industry, with the utmost priorities being hygiene and safety. The insects currently being raised (crickets and three types of worms-meal, wax, and super) for both the company’s conventional and organic lines of insect protein products are fed high-quality grain (with a gluten-free and grain-free line in the works). Euthanization of the insects is done via gassing with carbon monoxide.

Who Eats Insects?

Actually, lots of people do. Insects are a normal part of the diet of more than 2 billion people in many cultures outside of the United States, Canada, and Europe, where they are a cultural taboo. In the United States, however, the Food and Drug Administration allows a certain amount of insects and insect parts to be present in packaged foods. The levels are found in a report called The Food Defect Action Levels: Levels of Natural or Unavoidable Defects in Foods That Present No Health Hazards for Humans. For example, did you know the action level for frozen broccoli is an average of 60 or more aphids, and/or thrips and/or mites per 100 grams of vegetable or an average of 10 or more fly eggs per 100 grams of tomato juice?

Therefore, even if you are not consciously choosing to eat insects, you are probably already consuming them. What if you made a conscious effort to include them in your diet?

Embracing Insect Protein

The case for using insect protein to help nourish people (as well as pets and livestock) is clear, according to Goldin. In fact, he notes that insects are probably the most healthy source of protein available to people. Why?

Let’s take crickets, for example, which are one of the insects raised and processed by Next Millennium Farms. These insects contain 65 percent protein. Compare that protein figure with lean beef and lamb (both of which provide about 36 percent protein) and chicken breast (about 33 percent). Although tofu beats out the meat (48 percent protein), insects still inch out ahead.

Crickets contain more iron than spinach by weight, a healthful amount of calcium, all of the nine essential amino acids, and an impressive ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 (3:1). They are also low in fat and calories. No pesticides, antibiotics, steroids, or other artificial additives are used at Next Millennium Farms, as they are in most conventionally produced meats and fowl.

Environmental Benefits of Insect Protein

We already know that raising cattle and other livestock for human consumption places a tremendous burden on the environment in terms of water and land usage, soil and air contamination, and destruction of forests. To illustrate the great differences between raising livestock and insects for protein, Goldin pointed out the following:

  • To get 10 grams of animal protein, you need 100 gallons of water
  • To get 10 grams of insect protein, you need 10 gallons of water
  • 10 kilograms of feed yields 9 kilograms (about 2.2 lbs) of insect protein
  • 10 kilograms of feed yields 1 kilogram of animal protein

The average person consumes 50 grams of protein daily. If a family of four were to eat one meal per week utilizing insect protein, they would conserve 650,000 liters of water annually.

I’m not a math whiz, but the figures speak for themselves. In addition, the production of insect protein does not involve the significant amount of green house gas emissions (methane) released by cattle and other livestock and animal agricultural activities. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, more than 8 percent of non-carbon dioxide greenhouse gas emissions are from agricultural activities, including manure management as well as livestock belching and flatulence.

Read more about insects in your food

Eating Insect Protein

Now, let’s answer one of the first questions people ask about eating insects: what do they taste like? The taste depends on the individual, but Goldin pointed out that crickets have been described as tasting like smoked nuts or Asian shrimp chips.

However, the taste can be modified. Crickets that are fed specific foods take on the flavor of those foods. For example, insects given apples or red pepper will result in a product that tastes like these items.

Eating insect protein is safe, Goldin noted, with two exceptions. If you are allergic to seafood or nuts, you may have sensitivities to insects as well. The reason for the seafood connection is chitin, the horny, protective substance that is found on the exoskeletons of insects and crustaceans (e.g., lobsters, shrimp, crabs).

The idea of eating insect protein may take a while to establish itself in the parts of the world where the concept is still taboo. However, in the face of rapidly declining resources and a rising population, we need to shift away from factory farming and environmental destruction toward safe, nutritious, and planet-friendly food options. A plant-based diet is one option; insects are another.

Image: Wagner Machado Carlos

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Deborah is a freelance health writer who is passionate about animals and the environment. She has authored, co-authored, and written more than 50 books and thousands of articles on a wide range of topics. Currently, she lives in Tucson, Arizona.