As your crunchy friends probably have already told you — as they dug into that leg-encrusted grasshopper enchilada — insects are one of the most sustainable food sources on the planet, with the potential to feed everyone on Earth while only using a small fraction of the resources it takes to raise cattle or poultry. They reproduce fast, require next to no upkeep, and will eat absolutely anything. What they might have neglected to say is that bugs are healthy — a great source of cheap, lean protein, vitamins, and calories.
The nutritional benefits of eating bugs have been widely studied, and research shows that they’re rich sources of high-quality fatty acids, minerals, and vitamins such as zinc, copper, magnesium, selenium, biotin, and pantothenic acid. They are also low in fat and high in protein. Small grasshoppers, for example, have as much protein as lean ground beef, but with less fat per gram; mealworms provide as much protein, vitamins, and minerals as fish and meat; insect oil is a possible new source of healthy omega-3 fatty acid; and some caterpillars can contain more protein than a turkey leg. It turns out, insects are also an excellent source of iron.
A team of researchers led by Yemisi Latunde-Dada of King’s College in London recently found out about the iron benefits after analyzing mineral contents and availability from four popular edible bugs — crickets, grasshoppers, buffalo worms and mealworms. They then compared them against sirloin beef and whole wheat flour. They crushed the bugs into a powder and measured the mineral concentration of each: Crickets (12.91mg) had almost as much iron as beef (15.47mg) per 100g; whole-wheat flour only had 8.78mg. Crickets had the most overall concentration of calcium with 155.82mg (126.13mg on beef). All four bugs showed a higher concentration of zinc than beef. Grasshoppers, crickets, and buffalo worms beat beef and whole-wheat flour, when researchers analyzed concentration of copper.
Then the researchers looked into the iron bioavailability, or how much of the mineral the human body can actually absorb. They mixed the insect powder with some digestive enzymes to create a stomach-like environment. After analyzing the artificially digested samples, they concluded that in terms of cellular iron uptake, buffalo worms (beetle larvae) beat sirloin beef by about one third. Grasshoppers and mealworms came in at about three-quarters, and crickets about a half of beef’s iron uptake. The results were published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry.
It’s clear that some insects are extremely healthy to eat; but now what? The main problem stopping insect meals from going mainstream is in its texture and not its flavor, according to Fred Bassett, a graduate student at the food science program at Brigham Young University. Bassett has been working for a year on ways to turn cricket powder into a finer product, which he believes could change people’s minds. “There is a stigma [about eating bugs], but even if people know they are eating insects, if they can’t see it, they are more likely to be willing to try it.”
I you are still not convinced (and adventurous enough) to order “Bug Chef” Gordon’s famous Orthopteran Orzo Salad (a combination of pasta and crickets), or Chef Stephen Paprocki’s Mealworm Pizza Pissaladiére (slightly bitter mealworms with olive tapenade and delicate flaky crust), here are a few options that might be easier to swallow:
• For a high-protein post-workout drink, brands such as Crik, Entomo, and Chapul are slowly entering the protein powder market and hoping to make crickets the next whey. And it’s more than a niche fetish; all (and more) are available at Amazon.
• Chef Tyler Florence has recently partnered up with Bitty Foods, a brand that sells cookies and Mexican-inspired chips online, all made of cricket flour (you wouldn’t know they’re made of bugs). The San Francisco–based company also sells cricket baking flour to try your own recipes.
• If you’re going to need a drink before you eat a bug, Nordic Food Lab might have the thing for you. Its Anty Gin is made from red ants (62 per bottle), which give the spirit a distinct citrus flavor. For $30, you can try Critter Bitters, toasted crickets cocktail bitters made by a company called Trouble Makers. This one, however, isn’t for health nuts. Co-owners Julia Plevin and Lucy Knops started their company because they want to take “the ick factor out of entomophagy.”