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Edible insects could benefit individual and global health

Although edible insects are far from common in American and European cuisines, over 3,000 ethnic groups in 130 countries eat them regularly. While most of the people in these cultures harvest them in the wild, insect farming is also growing in popularity, since it uses less land, water, and feed, and emits fewer greenhouse gas emissions. 

Besides the increased sustainability of insect rearing compared to traditional livestock, eating insects also seems to have numerous health benefits. For instance, according to a recent study published in the journal Nature Food, chitin and healthy fats from insects are major sources of proteins and nutrients and could contribute to healthy gut microbiota.

“Edible insects and insect fibers may be unusual in the American diet, but they are commonplace around the globe, as insects are part of many traditional cuisines,” said study lead author Valerie Stull, an environmental health scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “They are gaining attention as an environmentally friendly source of animal protein.”

In the recent perspective piece summarizing the current knowledge on the health benefits of an insect diet, Stull collaborated with Tiffany Weir, an associate professor of Food Science and Human Nutrition at Colorado State University, building upon other research conducted together, such as a study arguing that cricket-derived chitin in designer chocolate patties can increase prebiotic effects in individuals suffering from irritable bowel syndrome.  

“Although reduced environmental impacts of insect rearing compared to traditional livestock have been a key selling point for insect-based products, there are also underexplored and under-appreciated nutritional benefits,” Weir explained. 

“Insects are touted as a good source of protein, but the fiber component, chitin, is not found in other animal foods, and the omega-3 content may be higher than what is found in many plant foods. These components may provide unique benefits for the gut by encouraging healthy gut microbiota and reducing intestinal inflammation.”

Some of the current article’s key findings include:

  • The types of insects consumed among the globe (in areas comprising a total of over two billion people) include beetles, caterpillars, bees, wasps, grasshoppers, ants, true bugs, and termites.
  • Although their nutritional profiles vary, most of these insects are rich sources of protein and contain all essential amino acids necessary for human nutrition, particularly those also found in cereal- and legume-based diets.
  • There is little evidence that eating insects may present more risks – in terms of allergens or contaminants – than other animal-based products.
  • Human cell types produce enzymes able to break down chitin and absorb it through the digestion process.
  • Insect consumption could help mitigate malnutrition worldwide, while reducing the risk of disease.
  • However, large, well-controlled human studies in targeted populations are still needed to better understand the impact of insects/chitin on gut health.

“Low-cost insect farming could help vulnerable communities meet their nutritional needs and improve food security, especially in contexts where entomophagy is already practiced,” wrote the researchers.

“Not only are insects generally an environmentally friendly animal protein source requiring fewer resources than conventional livestock, but some species are also adept recyclers that can consume and convert low-value organic byproducts and wastes, including food waste, into nutritious, high-quality food or animal feed.”

By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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