Eating Insects: A Healthy Solution to Food Shortages

Why we should (and already do) eat insects.

Why we should (and already do) eat insects.

The servers at the Royal Netherlands Embassy in Washington, D.C., bustled about the dining room, handing out hors d'oeuvres to bemused and somewhat reticent guests. As attendees received their food, the looks on their faces ranged from mild interest to bafflement to unadulterated disgust. Some staunchly refused to eat, while others succumbed to their curiosity and had a few nibbles. The sound of crunching tortilla chips (and the occasional dry heave) soon filled the air.

How did a little guacamole and a few chips provoke such an extreme reaction? It may have had something to do with the roasted crickets resting atop of each morsel.

Americans have long seen the act of eating insects – entomophagy – as taboo and, let's face it, a little gross. But a recent study from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations suggests that insects can and should be more than a "famine food" and eaten when food is scarce.

"Many people around the world eat insects out of choice, largely because of the palatability of the insects and their established place in local food cultures," says Marcel Dicke, head of the Department of the Laboratory of Entomology at Wageningen University in the Netherlands. Dicke, who headlined a lecture last month at the Royal Netherlands Embassy, is co-author of the Dutch-language "Het Insectenkookboek" ("The Insect Cookbook"), which will be released in English in the United States this fall. "In short, the world is facing an upcoming animal protein crisis," he says.

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Because of booming population growth worldwide – the United Nations estimates a population of 9 billion by 2050, an increase of about 2 billion people – we will be forced to more than double the current food production rate, Dicke says. But the current food production system may be ineffective and unsustainable. "If we look at all agricultural land, we see that 70 percent is devoted to livestock, and only 30 percent is devoted to producing food for human beings," Dicke says. "That would be fine, except we only get two pounds of edible product for every 22 pounds of feed, and we only eat about half of that. This is very inefficient."

The solutions to this problem will inevitably fly, wriggle or crawl their way onto our dinner plates, Dicke says – and in many cases, they already have. "Whether you know it or not, you're all eating insects already," he says. "Everything that's processed food contains insects."

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The U.S. Food and Drug Administration does, in fact, allow an amount of insect contamination in certain processed foods. For example, canned citrus fruit juices are allowed to contain five or more Drosophila (fruit fly) eggs or one or more maggots per 250 milliliters.

That's no reason to quarantine your orange juice, though. Of the estimated 6 million species of insects on Earth, at least 1,900 are considered edible, and Dicke says there are many advantages to eating insects, including nutritional quality comparable to processed beef, pork and fish.

"In many cultures outside of North America and Western Europe, insects are actually considered delicacies and are an important source of protein," Dicke says.

Caterpillars, for example, contain about 28 grams of protein per 100 grams, are chock-full of iron and thiamine (vitamin B1) and are only 370 calories. Beef and fish have comparable protein levels but don't provide as many vitamins or as much iron. One hundred grams of crickets contains 121 calories, 12.9 grams of protein and 5.5 grams of fat. One hundred grams of ground beef, by comparison, packs 23.5 grams of protein, but also has more than double the calories at 288, along with 21 grams of fat.

[Read: Worst Diet Advice: 'Only Eat When Hungry'.]

Michael Raupp, a professor of entomology and cicada expert at the University of Maryland who runs, shows his support of insects as a viable food source by snacking on cicadas whenever he gets the chance. "They have a very earthy taste, like a juicy nut," he says.