Foods You Didn’t Know Are Made of Insects

Insects, for many, are often associated with fear, disgust, or at best, the subject of a dare on a reality TV show. Yet, a large portion of the global population regularly consumes insects, both knowingly and unknowingly, as part of their diet.

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations has estimated that insects form part of the traditional diets of at least 2 billion people worldwide. As we strive for more sustainable food production, insects are increasingly seen as a viable solution due to their high protein content, efficient conversion of feed into edible body mass, and lower environmental footprint compared to traditional livestock.

As such, it might be high time we take a closer look at the bug-based foods that may already be part of our diet.

Insect-Based Dishes

As our understanding of sustainable food sources expands, so does our culinary repertoire. From cricket flour to mealworm burgers, the world of entomophagy is vast and full of culinary potential. Here are a few more insect-based foods that you might come across, each of which plays a part in diversifying our diets and contributing to a more sustainable food system.

  1. Mealworm Burgers: This might sound like something out of a science fiction movie, but it's a reality in some cultures. Mealworms, the larvae of darkling beetles, are rich in protein and can be used as a substitute for ground meat in burgers and other dishes. These critters are ground up and mixed with various herbs and spices to create patties that are then grilled or fried to perfection.
  2. Silkworm Soup: A delicacy in Korea, beondegi is a traditional dish made from boiled and seasoned silkworm pupae. This soup, often sold as street food, is known for its distinctive, somewhat nutty flavor.
  3. Ant Egg Soup: In Thailand, a soup made from ant eggs is considered a delicacy. These 'insect caviars' are collected from the nests of weaver ants and are known for their creamy texture and slightly sweet taste.
  4. Waxworm Tacos: Waxworms, the larvae of the wax moth, find their way into the culinary scene in Mexico. These larvae are sautéed with onions, garlic, and other spices and then served in tacos, offering a unique twist to the traditional Mexican fare.
  5. Grasshopper Chapulines: Toasted grasshoppers, or 'chapulines', are a popular snack in parts of Mexico. Seasoned with garlic, lime, and salt, these crispy critters can be eaten as a standalone snack or used as a protein-packed topping on other dishes.
  6. Crickets in Candy: For the adventurous sweet tooth, there are lollipops that incorporate whole crickets. These candies offer a crunchy surprise in the middle and serve as a conversation starter about the potential of insects as a food source.
  7. Insect Protein Bars: Several innovative companies have started incorporating cricket flour into protein bars, offering a high-protein, low-environmental-impact alternative to traditional protein sources. These bars come in various flavors, making the insect ingredient a lot less noticeable than one might think.
  8. Insect-Based Pasta: Cricket flour doesn't stop at protein bars and baked goods. Some companies have started producing pasta using this high-protein flour, providing a guilt-free way to enjoy this staple food.
  9. Silkworm Pizzas: While this might not be on your local pizzeria's menu, some experimental chefs have created pizzas topped with silkworms as a novel protein source.
  10. Cicada Stir-Fry: Periodical cicadas, which emerge every 13 or 17 years, have been used in the United States to create unique stir-fry dishes, showcasing the versatility of insects in cooking.

While the idea of munching on insects might still be a bit hard to swallow for some, the culinary and environmental benefits they offer are worth considering. These creatures are nutrient-rich, environmentally friendly, and, as demonstrated by the foods above, can be incredibly versatile in the kitchen.

The Bug in the Chocolate Bar: Shellac

When you're reaching for a shiny apple or a glossy piece of candy, have you ever wondered what gives it that appealing sheen? It might surprise you to know that it's often due to an ingredient called shellac, a resin secreted by the female lac bug (Kerria lacca) found in India and Thailand. This resin is processed and used as a glazing agent in confectionery, fruits, and even in the coating of certain pharmaceutical pills.

Red Dye: Carmine

Cochineal insects (Dactylopius coccus), native to Latin America, are the source of the red dye known as carmine or cochineal extract. These tiny bugs feed on cacti and concentrate the red color in their bodies. When crushed, they produce a vibrant red dye that has been used for centuries in textiles and is now commonly found in food and cosmetic products. The next time you enjoy a ruby-red strawberry yogurt or a vibrant pink lipstick, remember the little cochineal.

Protein Bars and Baked Goods: Cricket Flour

With a growing interest in sustainable protein sources, cricket flour has gained popularity in recent years. High in protein, rich in essential amino acids, and a good source of vitamins and minerals like B12 and iron, cricket flour is increasingly used in protein bars, baked goods, and even pasta. These tiny creatures are ground into a fine powder and can seamlessly integrate into recipes, providing a nutritional punch without the 'ick' factor of eating whole insects.

Your Daily Bread: L-Cysteine

L-Cysteine is an amino acid commonly used as a dough conditioner in bread production, making the dough easier to handle and improving the texture of the finished product. While it can be produced synthetically or derived from human hair or duck feathers, it can also be extracted from an unlikely source: insect shells.

Honey and Pollen

While not 'made of insects', honey and pollen are insect-related products that we consume frequently. Bees collect nectar and pollen, which are transformed into honey and bee pollen within the hive - foods that have been enjoyed by humans for their sweet taste and health benefits for thousands of years.

 Upsides of Insect-Based Foods

Insects may not be the first thing that comes to mind when considering nutrient-rich foods, but they are, in fact, packed with vital nutrients. Moreover, their environmental impact is far less than that of traditional livestock, making them a compelling choice for a more sustainable future.

  • Nutritional Value

    Insects are high in protein and rich in essential vitamins, minerals, and fatty acids. Crickets, for example, contain about 65% protein, which is comparable to the protein content in chicken and beef. They also have all nine essential amino acids, making them a complete protein source.

    Besides protein, insects are rich in iron, zinc, potassium, magnesium, and other minerals necessary for a healthy diet. Some insects, like mealworms, also contain high levels of vitamin B12, a nutrient often lacking in vegetarian and vegan diets. Furthermore, insects like crickets and grasshoppers are high in omega-3 fatty acids, which are beneficial for heart and brain health.

  • Environmental Impact

    Insects have a significantly lower environmental impact compared to traditional livestock. They require far less land, water, and food to grow, and they emit fewer greenhouse gases. For instance, crickets need six times less feed than cattle, four times less than sheep, and two times less than pigs and broiler chickens to produce the same amount of protein.

    Insects are also highly efficient at converting feed into protein. Crickets, for instance, can convert 2 kilograms of feed into 1 kilogram of body weight, while cattle require 8 kilograms of feed to achieve the same result.

    Additionally, many insects can be farmed on organic waste materials that would otherwise go unused or end up in landfills. This not only reduces waste but also makes insects a potentially significant part of circular food systems, where waste from one process becomes the input for another.

    In a world grappling with the twin challenges of food security and environmental sustainability, insects present a promising solution. As we overcome cultural and psychological barriers to entomophagy, we might soon see insects becoming a regular part of diets worldwide.

Insects have been part of human diets for centuries, especially in regions like Asia, Africa, and Latin America. With increasing concerns about food security and environmental sustainability, the West is also catching on to the benefits of entomophagy (the practice of eating insects).

So, the next time you reach for a shiny apple, a piece of bread, or even a protein bar, remember the tiny creatures that might have played a role in its production. It's all part of the fascinating, if somewhat surprising, world of food.