The alternative Christmas feast

10 December 2019

10 December 2019

Insects are now becoming a more acceptable part of Western nutrition. In this series of articles we look at the range of foods that they can be found in.

Muriel Cozier

The meat-free trend is not letting up. Over the Christmas season many people will be cutting their meat consumption, looking for vegetable-based or vegan options to consume during their festivities. However with demand for good sources of animal protein set to increase as the global population grows, finding alternatives to meat has led researchers and nutritionists to consider insect consumption or entomophagy.

A review in Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture indicates that moves towards insect farming and consumption are gaining momentum. While insects are still a novel idea for western societies, they are an integral part of diet for more than two billion people, with some 2000 insect species reportedly consumed across the globe.

Insects have a high reproductive rate and feed conversion efficiency. They produce a large number of offspring in a short period of time, making them ideal for farming purposes, and they require little space, food and water. Insect farming is not a new concept, with silkworms the most commercially farmed insect. The domesticated silkworm is completely dependent on humans for its survival, suggesting that insects can be farmed much like their livestock counterparts.

Harvesting insect protein is not restricted to conventional farming methods. In recent years there have been investigations into culturing insect cells in suspension in bioreactors. Advantages of this system include the reduced risk of contamination and the composition of the cells can be controlled by using specific tissue types.

Nutritionally, many edible insects have shown favourable results with regards to their protein, fat, amino acid, fatty acid and mineral content. Comparative studies indicate that commercially available insects have nutritional values comparable to or higher than both chicken and beef. 

Insects have made their way into the commercial western food chain, but food safety concerns had to be addressed. Many insects are poisonous, unpalatable or cause allergic reactions. Microbiological and biochemical tests revealed growth of food borne pathogens. Fried beetles were tested for microbial growth over nine days in both refrigerated and room temperature environments, with the expected result of quicker bacterial growth at the higher temperature.

Allergic reactions related to the consumption of insects are documented and are comparable to those of other arthropod species such as crustaceans. Controlled skin sensitivity tests using a number of different insect protein extracts have shown that 30% of previously allergic patients and 25% of non-allergic patients show sensitivity to at least one insect extract. The patients in the study were not accustomed to consuming insects.

There is still a level of distaste in relation to insect consumption, but a cultural shift is underway. It was not that long ago that eating sushi (raw fish) was deemed unpalatable. Similarly lobster, a family member of insects now seen as a delicacy, was once shunned for human consumption.

With a number of countries giving the all-clear for insect consumption, several businesses have taken up the challenge of converting consumers to insect-based products.  In this short series we will highlight some of the insect-based foods that are available. You may be pleasantly surprised about where you can find these creepy crawlies.

Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture DOI:10.1002/jsfa.8860

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