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I have heard of some benefits of insects as food, but are there any drawbacks? I've never heard of a human culture whose primary protein intake came exclusively from insects. Would someone converting to an insect-only diet need to supplement their nutritional intake in any way? Would such a conversion (removing traditional livestock and replacing them with breeding insects) cause any environmental problems?

This question is mainly aimed at western cultures similar to the US (Canada, UK, etc), where it is currently taboo to eat insects. I have wondered about it for many years, and was reminded of it again while watching this TED video and again while watching a rerun of the China episode from An Idiot Abroad.

(Personally, I consider ocean crustaceans like shrimp and lobster and crabs to just be sea insects, so I don't really have a hang-up. But I know my wife would probably rather starve.)

  • Jared Diamond, IIRC in Guns, Germs, and Steel, comments on New Guinea tribes where the usual diet is so poor in protein that nobody passes up a convenient bug to eat. – David Thornley Apr 13 '11 at 2:21
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Entomophagy is the consumption of insects as food. Over 1,000 insects are known to be eaten in 80% of the world's nations.

Hundreds of species have been used as human food. Some of the more important groups include grass- hoppers, caterpillars, beetle grubs and (sometimes) adults, winged termites (some of which are very large in the tropics), bee, wasp and ant brood (larvae and pupae) as well as winged ants, cicadas, and a variety of aquatic insects. Ordinarily, insects are not used as emergency food to ward off starvation, but are included as a planned part of the diet throughout the year or when seasonally available.

"A Concise Summary of the General Nutritional Value of Insects"; Reprinted from Crop Protection Volume 11, Gene DeFoliart, "Insects as human food........", pp. 395-399, 1992. Web archive.

Further quotes from this article:

Nutritional value of insects:

  • "Insects are very high in crude protein, many species ranging above 60%."
  • "Insects vary widely in fat (and, thus, energy) content."

  • "Recent analyses of 94 of the insect species consumed in Mexico [...] yielded high fat and caloric values (Ramos-Elorduy and Pino, 1990). [...] Of the insects analysed, 50% had a higher caloric value than soybeans; 87% were higher than corn; 63% were higher than beef; 70% were higher than fish, lentils and beans; and 95% were higher than wheat, rye or teosintle."

  • "The caterpillar, Usta terpsichore M. & W. (Satumiidae), was found to be a rich source of iron, copper, zinc, thiamin (vitamin BJ and riboflavin (B2); 100 9 of cooked insect provided > 100% of the daily requirement of each of these minerals and vitamins (Oliveira et al., 1976)."
  • "Chitin comprises ~ 10% of whole dried insects" and is "a source of fibre and calcium".
  • "The long history of human use suggests, however, with little evidence to the contrary, that the insects intentionally harvested for human consumption do not pose any significant health problem."

Efficiency compared to live stock:

  • "The insects are many times higher in protein and fat than are the plants upon which they feed: for example, protein (on a dry weight basis) is 69.05% in the adult weevil, Metamasius spinolae Vaurie, compared with 5.21% in nopal, the cactus upon which it feeds."
  • "When the cosmopolitan house cricket, Acheta domesticus, was maintained at temperatures > 30°C and fed a diet of similarly high quality to that used in bringing beef animals to market size and condition, the food conversion efficiency of the crickets was estimated to be more than five times that of beef animals (Nakagaki and DeFoliart, 1991). When the high fecundity of the cricket is considered (1500 offspring per female cricket compared with four standing animals in the beef herd for each animal marketed), the true food conversion efficiency is closer to 15-20 times greater for the cricket than for beef."
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    Any issues with insect waste product in a scaled-up farm? I've kept feeder crickets as food for lizards, and their poop builds up pretty quickly and smells terrible. I'd assume large exposure could potentially be dangerous. – Dogmafrog Mar 16 '11 at 17:31
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    Please attribute the material properly. Most, if not all, of what you say can be found in "A Concise Summary of the General Nutritional Value of Insects" - those are not your own words. – Borror0 Mar 16 '11 at 17:38
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    -1 for a serious failure to attribute text. That's not nice behaviour, not nice at all. Will revote after correct attribution is addded. Here's one link to the original publication: food-insects.com/Insects%20as%20Human%20Food.htm – Ilari Kajaste Mar 16 '11 at 18:12
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    @ Borror0 @Ilari Kajaste the link to the article was in my answer. I guess not clear enough, I used subtitle "Insects as human food" for the link. Now changed that and added another sentence "From the article quoted above". Please feel free to correct if thats not enough. – Egle Mar 18 '11 at 14:09
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    yup, wasn't clear enough. Now is. Problem fixed, and +1. :) – Ilari Kajaste Mar 18 '11 at 18:20
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I couldn't find a study about the downside of eating insects, but anecdotally...

Insects are generally too small for butchering. Every bite contains meat and poop and exoskeleton etc.

It's unclear how insects could be farmed and processed with economy of scale, which is the means by which one society dominates another. On TV (Bizarre Foods etc.) insects are shown to be gathered in their natural state, or sometimes a plant is injured to encourage insects to show up. It doesn't seem possible to scale this up to create foods cheap enough to manipulate relations with other societies.

In England there has been a long experiment with mycoprotein farming, which IMHO takes the primary argument for insect farming to its logical conclusion - it harvests protein from organisms even smaller than insects, such that dealing with them resembles a chemical process like baking or brewing more than animal farming.

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    Out of curiosity: is there anything in your second sentence which doesn't apply to shrimps? – Benjol May 3 '11 at 10:29
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    @Benjol in my experience the exoskeleton of a shrimp is removed as well as the digestive tract. See preparation of a shrimp at wikipedia – Nicktar Sep 6 '11 at 10:23
  • @Nicktar, I know, so my question remains valid: If you can do it for shrimps, you can also do it for insects. – Benjol Sep 6 '11 at 11:55
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    @Benjol I wouldn't be so sure. Shrimps 've got some convenient weak spots in their exoskeleton and their 'sand vein' is located conveniently too. But the exoskeleton of an insect is chitin which seems to be edible. I don't know about grashopper goo but since their digestive system is way different from ours I don't think this would be a problem (apart from the anecdotical evidence of all the populations eating insects not beeing extinct)... – Nicktar Sep 6 '11 at 20:39

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