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Can Insects Compete With Beef, Poultry as Nutritional Powerhouses?

Joel B. Mason, MD, isn’t ready to pop a whole cricket in his mouth just yet. But he’s okay with eating granola, pasta, or energy bars made with powdered crickets.

“[Y]ou can fold it into a number of recipes and use it similarly to the way you use flour,” he said. Besides facilitating cooking and baking, “it gets past this yuck factor that most North Americans have about popping an insect into their mouth.”

Mason’s interest in edible insects doesn’t stem from living in exotic lands or indulging in culinary innovation. He’s a cancer researcher with an affinity for the environment. Preventing colon cancer through nutrition is his primary pursuit, and that’s part of where crickets come in.

Ton Koene/VWPics/AP Images

Eating processed meat is an accepted risk factor for developing colorectal cancer, and about one-fifth of meat eaten in the United States is processed. “It occurred to me that maybe if people consume more of their protein requirements in the form of cricket powder compared to processed meat, it might diminish the risk of colorectal cancer,” said Mason, a professor of medicine and nutrition at Tufts University.

But human health isn’t his only concern. Mason is among a small cadre of US scientists who also want to help preserve the planet’s health by studying insect consumption as a way to feed a burgeoning global population while lessening the environmental impact of traditional livestock. Raising insects takes less space, uses fewer resources, and emits fewer greenhouse gases than meat and poultry production, according to a 2013 United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization report.

“I see a lot of potential for insects to improve human health and also environmental sustainability,” said Valerie Stull, PhD, MPH, a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Global Health Institute. Although insects aren’t a cure-all for the global increase in chronic diseases and a growing demand for protein-rich foods, Stull said crickets, beetles, grasshoppers, and some of their other invertebrate brethren are “one piece of the puzzle.”

Getting Organized

Eating insects, known as entomophagy, has been common in some parts of the world for thousands of years. Today, at least 2 billion people worldwide dine or snack on insects, some 1900 species of which are edible. Even so, Mason said that research on the health effects of insect consumption is at an “embryonic” stage. “But there’s enough data out there that suggests there might be some genuine health benefits, and it’s worth pursuing.”

That sentiment prompted Mason and a multidisciplinary group of like-minded experts to form the Tripartite Organization for the Promotion of Insect Consumption, or TOPIC. The group includes representatives from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), the insect-based food industry, and academia. They met in the spring of 2017 at Tufts’ Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging, where Mason directs the Vitamins & Carcinogenesis Laboratory.

In a white paper published last year, the group identified 3 priority areas: optimizing production, exploring health implications, and market development. Mason and his colleagues at Tufts are working to obtain grants from the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, a federal agency within the USDA, in hopes of answering some basic questions the group has raised.

One of their projects aims to examine whether protein from cricket powder, compared with protein from more conventional sources, reduces the risk of colorectal cancer. Another has proposed a life-cycle assessment of cricket powder production to gauge how much water, electricity, natural gas, and other resources are needed to raise the insects and whether or to what degree they may contaminate the environment.

“[I]f I’m going to pursue this idea of encouraging North Americans to consume cricket powder, I want to convince myself that it really is good for the environment,” Mason said.

Stull is part of TOPIC and 4 years ago she cofounded another group, the Mission to Improve Global Health Through Insects, or MIGHTi. It’s a collaborative research project with partners in the United States, Africa, and Central America. In Guatemala, MIGHTi studies how a program that trains rural women to cultivate mealworms as a protein source affects community members’ health, livelihoods, and the environment. In Zambia, the group assesses the health effects of eating insects and new ways to farm them locally.

“We’re looking at the health, environmental, and social implications of edible insects,” Stull said.

Jeffery Tomberlin, PhD, professor and AgriLife Research fellow at Texas A&M University, was an organizer of last year’s Insects to Feed the World conference in Wuhan, China. The international gathering examined insects as food for humans and livestock. If insect feed can produce healthier animals, there could be a downstream effect for people.

“[T]he nutritional health of humans … directly links with what we’re eating and what those animals are being fed prior to their production,” Tomberlin said. “In other words, it’s not only we are what we eat … we are what we eat eats.”

The “Gateway Bug”

Stull said she can’t take credit for the play on words, but some of her colleagues call crickets the “gateway bug”—as opposed to a gateway drug—because they might be US consumers’ first step toward eating insects.

“We have a positive association with them from Pinocchio,” she said. “We don’t despise them the way we would despise some other insects like termites.”

But how nutritious are they? A 2016 study showed that compared with beef, chicken, and pork, they’re similar in calories, protein, and saturated fat; lower in total fat; and higher in sodium. They’re also higher in calcium, iron, vitamins A and C, and riboflavin. Like other insects and shellfish, crickets have an exoskeleton composed of chitin, a unique, nondigestible source of fiber.

The study authors also analyzed several other insects, including mealworms and the mopane caterpillar, a Zimbabwean delicacy and protein powerhouse—about 35 g per 100 g of an edible amount compared with about 20 g in crickets, beef, chicken, and pork.

Mason said companies that produce cricket powder obtain nutritional analyses of their products. Some that he has seen, he noted, indicate that cricket powder has 5 times more protein per gram than whole wheat flour and 10 times more vitamin B12 than beef. That’s good news for vegetarians, he added, because most dietary vitamin B12 comes from animal products.

Although nutritional content doesn’t equal health benefits, a couple of recent studies support Mason’s view that further research is warranted. A recent meta-analysis showed that although chitosan, a chitin derivative consumed in capsules or as tiny crystals, has no effect on systolic blood pressure, it can significantly decrease diastolic blood pressure when taken at certain dosages for less than 12 weeks. In addition, an 8-week randomized, controlled trial involving 41 adults with prehypertension showed that using up to 3 g of table salt in the daily diet increased systolic blood pressure but the same amount of a salt and chitosan mixture reduced systolic blood pressure.

Crickets and Gut Health

Stull hopes to begin filling the research gap by looking at whether cricket powder can influence gut health. In a pilot study published last year, Stull and several colleagues recruited 20 adults to compare whether a pumpkin spice muffin and chocolate shake breakfast containing 25 g of cricket powder would affect the gut microbiota differently than a nearly identical muffin and shake without any cricket content.

With about 8.5% dietary fiber by weight, Stull said cricket powder has a benefit missing in other protein powders such as soy or whey. If adding cricket powder to the diet increases overall fiber intake, Stull said it could affect the microbiome.

In her study, half of the group ate either a cricket powder or control breakfast for 14 days. After a 2-week wash-out period, the groups switched breakfasts for another 14 days. People in the study tolerated the cricket breakfasts, had no gastrointestinal upset, and their healthy gut microbes weren’t disrupted.

But cricket consumption was linked with increases in 5 types of bacteria, including 1 closely related to Bifidobacterium animalis, a commercial strain of which has been shown to improve bowel function, protect against diarrhea, and reduce some adverse effects of antibiotic treatment.

The study’s take-home message, Stull said, is that edible insects might act as a prebiotic that boosts the amount of good bacteria in the gut, which could lead to various health benefits. “We’re just scratching the surface of answering these health questions,” she said.

Mason called Stull’s findings “somewhat provocative,” but said they stop short of demonstrating a genuine health benefit. “Science moves ahead by small steps in most instances,” he said. “[Stull’s study] is a small step and we’ve got a long way to go.”