A new research study shows that eating edible insects could provide as much or even more iron and other micro-nutrients as consuming beef.
A large percentage of the world’s population consumes meat. Unfortunately, meat production is taxing the planet, with its demand for substantially large amount of water and energy, in addition to contributing to environmental pollution. The look-out for an effective alternative is on and many sustainability researchers are buzzing with the idea of eating bugs.
The idea of eating edible bugs may seem disgusting for many Westerners, but a large proportion of the world’s population have been consuming them on a daily basis since time immemorial.
According to a United Nations report titled, “Edible insects: Future prospects for food and feed security in 2013”, 1900 species of insects are consumed by 2 billion people globally, especially in South and East Asia, Africa, and South and Central America. Out of these 1900 species, beetles (31%), caterpillars (18 %) and Hymenoptera i.e. the bees, wasps and ants (14 %) make-up for most part of insects consumption.
Recent studies hint that, entomophagy could be healthier than meat consumption from other animals, not only for human health, but also for the planet. An insect farm is far cheaper than maintaining a cattle ranch or a poultry farm and is perceived as a way to combat greenhouse gas emissions from livestock farming. With lesser ethical considerations, even animal-rights activists will be less grumpy about insect farms.
Edible insects are rich in nutrients. Crickets, for example are not only rich in protein, but also have 30-35 percent lesser fat when compared to beef. Adding to the list of goodies available in bugs, a new research published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, says insects are also rich in iron.
Iron is a critically important nutrient that is often not readily available in plant-based diets. As a consequence, iron-deficiency anaemia is widespread among non-meat eating populations such as the Southeast Asians, leading to lower immune strength, declined cognitive abilities, poorer pregnancy outcomes and other health issues.
Lately, there is a rise in interest in insect consumption as a potential alternative for meat. Other than protein, very little is known about the nutritional profile, particularly the bio-availability of critical minerals in edible bugs. Yemisi Latunde-Dada and her colleagues set out to find this and check whether insects can provide a well-rounded meal and even potentially replace beef.
For their investigation, researchers picked four very common edible insects namely – crickets, grasshoppers, buffalo worms and meal-worms and compared them against sirloin beef. They analysed these insects for their mineral contents like iron, calcium, copper, magnesium, manganese and zinc and estimated what amount of these nutrients if eaten, would probably get absorbed into the digestive system, using a lab model of human digestion.
Analysed results showed that, cricket had the highest level of iron among all the insects, surpassing even beef. Also minerals such as copper, zinc, calcium, manganese and magnesium in meal-worms, grasshoppers and crickets were more chemically available for absorption than the same micro-nutrients in beef.
Next the researchers wanted to find out the bio-availability of iron i.e. how much out of the chemically available iron in insects can a human body actually absorbs. This depends on multiple factors. For example, an insect may contain large amount of iron, but may get poorly absorbed due to food particle size or the mineral may be encapsulated by insect cellular material which may be difficult for the human gut to break down.
To get an estimate of the bio-availability of iron, researchers mixed the insect powder with digestive enzymes typically available in human stomach and later with bile-pancreatic juices to simulate the reactions in small intestine. Next this digested sample was added into human cells and the amount of ferritin – a protein that stores and releases iron in mammals, produced by these cells were measured to quantify iron absorption. Level of ferritin available, gives a direct indicator of the amount of iron absorbed by the body.
Surprisingly even though crickets had the highest levels of available iron, the iron uptake was the least among all the insects considered. Buffalo worms iron absorption levels were the highest, even trumping that of sirloin beef. The bio-availability of iron in meal-worms and grasshopper were almost same but were lower than that in beef.
The results clearly show that edible bugs can easily fulfill the nutrition requirements of humanity. The only major constraint could be in making people accept insects as food. This will take time as it demands for a shift in people’s perception and attitude.
Gladys O. LatundeDada, Wenge Yang, Mayra Vera Aviles. “In Vitro Iron Availability from Insects and Sirloin Beef”, Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, 2016; DOI: 10.1021/acs.jafc.6b03286