In the early 1980s, I was a member of a team of nutritionists who analysed bush food samples sent by “The Bush Tucker Man” (Major Les Hiddins) from northern Australia to the Defence Nutrition laboratory in Tasmania.
The foods had been identified by Aborigines as being edible, and therefore of potential interest to Defence as survival foods if Australia was ever invaded and troops were cut off from normal supply lines.
Among the many foods Les sent for analysis were several insects, including the witchetty grub, honey ant, scale insects and lerps. We found that these foods were generally of high nutritional value.
Witchetty grubs, for instance, are an ideal survival food, being rich in protein (15% by weight), fat (20%) and energy (~1170 kilojoules per 100 grams). Witchetty grubs are also valuable sources of vitamin B1 and the essential minerals potassium, magnesium and zinc.
It’s clear that insects played an important role in feeding hundreds (perhaps even thousands) of generations of Australian Aborigines. They have also figured prominently in the nutrition of human populations in many other parts of the world, and continue to do so.
One estimate is that:
"approximately 1500–2000 species of insects and other invertebrates are consumed by 3000 ethnic groups across 113 countries in Asia, Australia, and Central and South America."
A recent report by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that insects form part of the traditional diets of two billion people (nearly 30% of the world’s population).
Globally, the most commonly consumed insects are beetles (31% of the total insects consumed), caterpillars (18%) and bees, wasps and ants (14%). Other commonly eaten insects include grasshoppers, locusts, crickets and cicadas. Termites, dragonflies and flies are not commonly used for human food (but are still eaten in small quantities).
The FAO report also notes that edible insects are shunned in most developed Western nations because they are regarded as being a nuisance to people (think mosquitoes and house flies) or pests that interfere with the production of crops and animals used as human food.
But this is only one side of the story — insects are a potential source of food at low cost (in terms of money and impact on the environment), they assist with food production (through pollination of important food plants, for instance), and play vital environmental roles.
As also pointed in the FAO report, arable land is already scarce, oceans are being over-fished, and climate change may impact adversely on food production. Unless we join the many traditional societies who make good use of insects as a food source, we may struggle to feed the additional two billion people expected to inhabit the planet by 2050.
Changing bad habits
Much of the information in the FAO report is not new. For example, in 2009, a prominent Australian researcher in this area, Alan Yen pointed out that people in developed societies derive much of their food from unsustainable practices, such as growing grain to feed beef cattle and over-exploiting the ocean’s fisheries.
Yen also noted that protein malnutrition is already common in many parts of the world. And he claims that, because they are animals, insects constitute a source of higher quality protein for humans than we can obtain from plants.
Another advantage of insects as a food source is that they’re very efficient converters of feed into body mass. While cattle have variable “feed conversion rates” that range somewhere between five and 20 kilograms of feed needed for each kilogram of weight gain, according to the FAO report, crickets require only two kilograms of feed for each kilogram of weight gain.
Currently, nearly all insects consumed by people are harvested from the wild; insect farming is still rare, but it’s becoming more common. The FAO report states that cricket farming is taking place in the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Thailand and Vietnam.
Industrial scale production is also on the horizon, with several companies “in various stages of start-up for rearing mass quantities of insects such as black soldier flies”.
Crawling to a brighter future
So are we ready to embrace insects as a mainstream food?
Well, you know that a food has a bright future in Australia when it’s mentioned in a magazine such as Gourmet Traveller. The May 2013 issue of this harbinger of food trends rates insects as one of the 100 hot items in world cuisine.
It also states that chic eateries in Sydney are now offering insect-based menu items, such as the “stir-fried crickets” and “ni hao mealworm cakes” available at Billy Kwong (Kylie Kwong’s restaurant). Meanwhile, El Topo, a Mexican restaurant in Bondi offers “crisp crickets with chilli and garlic” as a bar snack.
It appears that the use of insects as a source of food for humans has not only a long history, but also a bright future.
A parting anecdote
In 1985, I attended a bush foods seminar that included a cooking demonstration by a leading Sydney chef. One of the foods he prepared was “witchetty grub cappuccino”.
It consisted of witchetty grubs blended with milk, and sprinkled with wattle seeds. Surprisingly, at least to me, it had a pleasant, slightly nutty taste.
It’s nearly 30 years since I last enjoyed eating an insect-based food. I think I’m ready to eat insects again if they are prepared in appetising ways.
Are you also ready to join the two billion people who make use of this environmentally-friendly and nutritious food source?