Excerpted from Edible: An Adventure Into the World of Eating Insects and the Last Great Hope to Save the Planet by Daniella Martin, out now from New Harvest.
A few years ago I gave a talk on insect nutrition to the International Society of Sports Nutrition in Las Vegas. Of all the audiences I’ve ever spoken to, they were the most enthusiastic about edible insects. They all wanted me to alert them the moment an insect protein product of some kind went on the market. Used to a larger degree of skepticism, I remarked on their outpouring of excitement.
“Well,” joked one of the attendees dryly, “if you tell a bodybuilder that eating manure will help him put on muscle, he’ll go out into a pasture with a fork.”
Bodybuilders and extreme athletes tend to be early adopters of nutrition trends. That’s why they are precisely the demographic Dianne Guilfoyle, a school nutrition supervisor in Southern California, hopes to capture with BugMuscle, a protein powder made up entirely of ground insects.
“If people see bodybuilders taking it, they might accept it more willingly,” says Dianne, whose son Daniel is a cage fighter.
There are many benefits to using insects as a base for protein powder. For one, the main existing sources are soybeans and milk whey, both of which cause health concerns for some people.
While insect protein might not be a perfect alternative for those with shellfish allergies, for others it could present an alternative that’s healthier for their bodies and the planet than some of the existing options. Previously, whey protein was the only protein powder source to supply a complete amino acid profile: all nine of the essential amino acids required for human nutrition. But guess what else is a great source of these amino acids? That’s right, insects.
Whey in its natural liquid form is only about 1 percent protein by weight, whereas dried whey is 12 percent protein. Processed whey protein isolate, marketed as the main ingredient in protein powder, is about 80 percent protein by weight. In comparison, dried beef is about 50 percent protein. Dried crickets weigh in at 65 percent protein. That’s in their whole, natural form, without industrial processing, unlike the whey protein isolate. Cricket protein isolate doesn’t exist yet, though it has been proposed.
Clearly, we’re looking at an interesting possibility here, limited largely by lack of both research and public interest in edible insects.
In addition to being high in protein, many edible insect species are also high in essential fatty acids, particularly omega-3s. Aquatic insects tend to have higher levels of essential fatty acids, though all edible insects contain them to some extent. Many insects, such as crickets, grasshoppers, ants, and certain caterpillars, are exceedingly high in calcium. Soldier fly larvae, used for processing compost, are off the charts in this nutrient.
As you may be aware, the nutrient B12 can only be found in animal sources. Crickets and cockroach nymphs are both impressively good sources for B12. If vegans could accept the idea of eating insects, they could potentially manage their B12 intake just by popping a few crickets a couple times a week.
Part of the reason nutrient levels are so high for certain insects is because they are eaten whole, including their exoskeleton and internal organs. Certainly, if more of our livestock were somehow ground up whole and fed to us, we’d get far more nutrition out of them.
Calcium in particular may be high because of the fact that we ingest the insects’ “bones,” or exoskeleton. This protective structure is made out of chitin, a long-chain polymer of acetylglucosamine. It’s the same stuff that shrimp, crab, and lobster shells are made of, as well as the cell walls of fungi (mushrooms). It is structurally similar to cellulose, which makes up the cell walls of plants, and functionally similar to keratin, which our hair and nails are made of. After cellulose, it is the second most abundant natural biopolymer on the planet and is useful in things like biodegradable surgical thread, edible films for preserving fruits and vegetables, as a dietary fiber, and as a potential absorber of cholesterol.
In one episode of The Simpsons, Lisa Simpson faints during a saxophone solo. The doctor chalks it up to an iron deficiency.
“Please say it’s the vegetarianism,” her mother prays. “It’s not the vegetarianism,” snaps Lisa.
“It’s a little bit the vegetarianism,” says the doctor, prescribing iron supplements that clank like railroad spikes into his hand.
Lisa tries taking the monster supplements but complains of vitamin burps all day. Lunch Lady Doris intervenes, giving Lisa a taste of what, she says, keeps her young: beetle mush. Lisa protests that she’s a vegetarian.
“Get real,” scoffs Doris. “There’s bug parts in peanut butter!”
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