Which Insects Are Edible?

Insects are healthy, nutritious alternatives to mainstream staples such as chicken, pork, beef and even fish!

What’s more, they have a much smaller ecological footprint than livestock.

Our Guide to Edible Insects

The INFOODS program at Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in Rome has published the Food composition database for biodiversity with the aim of making nutritional values of wild and underutilized foods available. In the 2017 version 4.0 of this database, a total of 471 entries of edible insects (covering different insect species and various preparation methods) were included.

The Major Groups of Edible Insect Species

There are six common commercial edible insect species at present, including cricket (Acheta domesticus), honeybee (Apis mellifera), domesticated silkworm (Bombyx mori), mopane caterpillar (Imbrasia belina), African palm weevil (Rhynchoporus phoenicis) and yellow meal worm (Tenebrio molitor).

For some of them, like the African Palm Weevil, only larvae are typically consumed as their abundant fats can provide a mesmerizing flavor. For others like cricket, usually only adults would be eaten.

Beetles

More than 500 000 species of beetles (Coleoptera) have been discovered. They are not only the biggest insect family but the biggest family in the animal reign. There are many kinds of edible beetles, including aquatic beetles, wood-boring larvae, and dung beetles (larvae and adults). Researchers identified 78 edible aquatic beetle species, mainly belonging to the DytiscidaeGyrinidae and Hydrophilidae families. Typically, only the larvae of these species are eaten.

Giant water beetles, for instance, are fried or roasted and are said to have a flavor that is not unlike scallops.  They are a cheap treat in Thailand, where they are readily available in the wild and are eaten shells and all after being fried or roasted.

The most popular edible beetle in the tropics, by far, is the palm weevil, Rynchophorus, a significant palm pest distributed throughout Africa, southern Asia and South America. The palm weevil R. phoenicis is found in tropical and equatorial Africa on the use of sound in harvesting), R. ferrugineus in Asia (Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines and Thailand) and R. palmarum in the tropical Americas (Central America and West Indies, Mexico and South America).

Caterpillars

Caterpillars are the larvae of a large group of insects the Lepidoptera, the butterflies and moths  but adult butterflies and moths are also eaten). It is in this family that we find the most eaten insect in the world : the silkworm.

Silkworms

Caterpillars are a popular food source because they are common over most of the world. They can be eaten raw, fried, baked or even dried and stored for use at a later date.

Witchetty Grubs have been a traditional food among Australia’s indigenous community for centuries. This wood-eating larvae turns into a moth if it doesn’t find its way onto the plate. They are either eaten raw or cooked in the ashes of a fire.

In the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, people have been observed eating hawkmoths (Daphnis spp. and Theretra spp.) after removing the wings and legs. Nevertheless, the practice is limited.

The mopane caterpillar (Imbrasia belina) is arguably the most popular and economically important caterpillar consumed. Endemic to the mopane woodlands in Angola, Botswana, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe, the caterpillar’s habitat extends over about 384 000 kmof forest.

An estimated 9.5 billion mopane caterpillars are harvested annually in southern Africa, a practice worth US$85 million. Caterpillar harvesting is not exclusive to Africa.

bamboo worms
Bamboo worms

In Asia, the bamboo caterpillar (Omphisa fuscidentalis), also known as the bamboo borer or bamboo worm, is a popular food that is being promoted by the Thai Department of Forestry of the Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives as an increasingly viable source of income In the Chiapas region in Mexico, locals are believed to consume up to 27 caterpillar species.

Wasps, bees, and ants

We know bees for the honey, propolis and royal jelly but you can also eat bee larvae. Wasps larvae are reported to be the favorite food of some ancient Japan emperors.

Bee larvae

Ants are highly sought-after delicacies in many parts of the world. They also render important ecological services, including nutrient cycling, and serve as predators of pests in orchards. The weaver ant (Oecophylla spp.) is used as a biological control agent in various crops, such as mangoes, and the larvae and pupae of the reproductive form (queen brood), also called ant eggs, constitute a popular food in Asia. In Thailand they are sold in cans. The black weaver ant (Polymachis dives) is widely distributed in subtropical southeast China, Bangladesh, India, Malaysia and Sri Lanka. It is used as a nutritional ingredient and processed into various tonics or health foods available on the Chinese market. The State Food and Drug Administration and State Health Ministry of China have approved more than 30 ant-containing health products since 1996.

In Japan, the larvae of yellow jacket wasps (Vespula and Dolichovespula spp.), locally known as hebo, are commonly consumed. During the annual Hebo Festival, food products made from the larvae of the wasps are popular delicacies, so much so that the local supply is insufficient and imports from Australia and Vietnam are necessary to keep up with demand.

An inventory compiled in Chiapas, Mexico, suggested that most (67) insect species eaten in the state belong to the Hymenoptera order, and two leafcutter ant species (Atta mexicana and A. cephalotus) are becoming increasingly commercialized there.

Further south, Amerindians have also been documented eating ants of the Atta genus. Colonies of Atta species can have more than 1 million workers, and some can have up to 7 million. Their effect on vegetation in the Neotropics is said to be comparable with that of large grazing mammals on the African savannah. Therefore, a leafcutter colony can be considered competitive with a cow.

Crickets, grasshoppers and locusts

Cricket powder is now popular and they are called the “Gateway bug” for Western consumers. They are farmed from Thailand to US, Africa and Europe.

About 80 grasshopper species are consumed worldwide, and the large majority of grasshopper species are edible. Locusts may occur in swarms, which makes them particulary easy to harvest. In Africa, the desert locust, the migratory locust, the red locust and the brown locust are eaten. However, due to their status as agricultural pests they may be sprayed with insecticides in governmental control programmes or by farmers. For example, relatively high concentrations of residues of organophosphorus pesticides were detected in locusts collected for food in Kuwait.

Grasshoppers

Grasshoppers and locusts are generally collected in the morning when the temperature is cooler (and the insects, being cold-blooded, are relatively immobile). In Madagascar, there is a common saying: “Comment pourriez-vous attraper les sauterelles pondeuses et faire la grasse matinée en même temps?” (“one needs to waken early in the morning to catch grasshoppers”). In Oaxaca, the harvest of chapulines (edible grasshoppers of the genus Sphenarium) only takes place very early in the morning because chapulines are too active and difficult to catch during the hotter part of the day.

In the West African nation of Niger, it is not uncommon to find grasshoppers for sale in local markets or sold as snacks on roadsides. Remarkably, researchers found that grasshoppers collected in millet fields fetched a higher price in local markets than millet.

The chapuline is probably the best-known edible grasshopper in Latin America. This small grasshopper has been a part of local diets for centuries and is still eaten in several parts of Mexico. The valleys of Oaxaca state are especially famous for the consumption of chapulines. Cleaned and toasted in a little oil with garlic, lemon and salt for flavour, they are a common food ingredient among not only indigenous communities but also the urban population in Oaxaca city.

Chapulines are brachypterous, which means they have reduced, non-functional wings. Sphenarium purpurascens is a pest of alfalfa but also one of the most important edible insects in Mexico. Harvesters use conical nets without handles to lightly beat the alfalfa plants, allowing eachlocal family to obtain about 50–70 kg of grasshoppers weekly.

Chapulines play a significant role in local small-scale markets as well as in restaurants and export markets. Despite the nutritional and cultural value of chapulines, recent studies have shown that the grasshoppers can contain high and sometimes dangerous amounts of lead.

cricket beer
Cricket beer

In Japan, a brewer has added roasted crickets to malt and brewed a dark ale. The product is a syrupy brown and is said to give off an aroma of roasted caramel. The protein-rich crickets reportedly promote a rich flavor with a lingering aftertaste and long-lasting foam.

In Asia, the crickets Gryllus bimaculatusTeleogryllus occipitalis and T. mitratus are harvested in the wild and commonly consumed as food. The house cricket (Acheta domesticus) is also reared and commonly eaten, particularly in Thailand, and is preferred over other species because of its soft body.

In a study carried out in Thailand, 53 of 76 provinces had cricket farms. As of 2012, there were about 20 000 cricket farmers in Thailand. Additionally, the short-tail cricket (Brachytrupes portentosus), which has a large body and large head, is also quite popular for eating. However, this species cannot be farmed and therefore is only collected in the wild.

Despite the extensive practice of farming insects, only two species of edible cricket (Gryllus bimaculatus and Acheta domesticus) are farmed economically. Others, such as Tarbinskiellus portentosus, cannot be farmed due to their long life cycles. However, there are signs of change in the Lao People’s Democratic Republic and Cambodia: sellers are now saying that consumers prefer farmed crickets over those collected in the wild because they taste better.

True bugs

True bugs are truly delicious insects.

Dragonflies

Those big insects are mainly eaten in Bali where children catch them with a sticky wood and roast them on the fire.

Termites:

Termites are among the most highly nutritive insects. All the castes of termites are eaten, from the soldiers high in protein, to the delicate queen high in fat.

In the Western world, termites are generally synonymous with pests and are renowned for their capacity to devour wood. Yet termites are considered a delicacy in many parts of the world. They are consumed both as main and side dishes, or simply eaten as snack foods after they have been de-winged, fried and sun-dried.

Termites are rich in protein, fatty acids and other micronutrients. Fried or dried termites contain 32–38 percent proteins. Essential fatty acids such as linoleic acid are particularly high in the African aboveground hill termite species, Macrotermes bellicosus (34 percent) and M. subhyalinus (43 percent).

In the Venezuela, soldiers of Syntermes species (e.g. Syntermes aculeosus) are renowned for their high nutritional value. The protein content of this species is a remarkable 64 percent; the genus is also rich in essential amino acids such as tryptophan, iron, calcium and other micronutrients.

Flies

Diptera are one of the largest family of insects but few species are eaten. Even if the black soldier fly larva is more well known as feed for fish than an edible insect for human, Katharina Unger with her FARM432 created a way to raise them as food.

Cockroaches

They are surely the last insect you wanna eat. They are considered as pest but the vast majority of them are perfect clean animals living in nature. In 2016, Internet got crazy about the “cockroach milk” “a true super food of the future”

Spiders

Spiders with their 8 legs are not insects but also belong to the big family of arthropods. Tarantulas have been gathered by children in Cambodia for decades. Though the habit of eating spiders can be traced back to the scarcity brought on by the Khmer Rouge regime, the cooked spider trade still thrives in town’s like Skuon, which is well known for its edible arachnids.

selection of four edible insect species

The Many Benefits of Eating Insects

Besides being a source of valuable nutrients, studies have found bioactive compounds in insects with characteristics that could have the potential to reduce health risks and strengthen the immune system. As with bioactive compounds identified in other foods, health benefits need to be sufficiently documented to be claimed, and studies directly in humans are generally a prerequisite. More research into the impact of potentially bioactive compounds identified in insects on human health is required. Read more

Precautions to take when eating insects

While the search for bioactive compounds in insects to support health is driven by the positive agenda of improving human life, research must also address any health risks related to the consumption of insects. For example, cyanogenic compounds were identified in the edible beetle Eulepida mashona in Zimbabwe, and even though the compounds were degraded by heating in traditional cooking practices, caution was advised, e.g. when feeding the insects to small children (Musundire et al., 2016). Insects – farmed or wild – should be considered for the risk of accumulation of any toxic compounds.

Precautions must be taken before eating edible insects. It is important to know whether you are allergic to edible insects. In principle, individuals who are allergic to shellfish should not consume insects as they may be allergic to the chitin in the insect’s exoskeleton, which is very similar to the chitin in crustaceans. If you are unsure, you will need the appropriate medicine to deal with a possible allergic reaction.

Edible insects are clean in themselves, however may contain harmful products such as insecticides, pesticides and herbicides from landing on lawns or visiting certain crop fields that are being treated for pests. It is therefore never advisable to catch insects for consumption from the wild, gardens or fields and it is best to buy edible insects from specialized shops as these insects are bred specifically for human consumption at breeding centers/farms or they collect in tropical areas where the consumption of insects is common practice.

Original article

Daniel Pikl

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