Everything you need to know about adding insects to your diet
We talk nutrition, sustainability and flavour with the experts
When Andrew Zimmern's travel-and-culinary show Bizarre Foods debuted in 2006, bugs such as crickets, ants and silkworms were generally presented — at least in North America — as very exotic or outright "gross" novelty food items. (Nevermind the fact insects are "commonly consumed" in many countries internationally, and "have been a part of human diet since there were humans," according to Dr. Dominique Bureau, a professor of animal nutrition and agriculture at the University of Guelph.)
Fast forward a dozen years, and in Canada, Loblaws' President's Choice brand makes a cricket powder that can be used as a flour-substitute, you can buy cricket bars at upmarket grocery stores, and restaurants are putting grasshopper tacos and marinated ants on their everyday menus.
To break down this rising food trend, we talked to Dr. Bureau and two other experts — Jarrod Goldin, co-founder of Ontario-based Entomo Farms, and George Bachoumis, Retail General Manager of The McEwan Group — about taste, sustainability and the nutritional value of insects.
What is the nutritional value?
According to Goldin of Entomo Farms, which offers cricket and mealworm products, insects are a "wonderful, sustainable protein." "It's a whole, functional food that's very high in fibre and iron and [vitamin] B12 and calcium and omegas and all this highly absorbable, bio-available nutrient density … a recent study out of Italy said that some insects have antioxidants much higher than foods like oranges," says Goldin.
Dr. Bureau offers a more reserved assessment, "What I like to say about insects is that they're an okay source of amino acids and other nutrients, nothing to write home about." Crickets in particular are a food that's rich in protein on a dry-matter basis; they can be anywhere between 30 to 55 per cent protein, says Dr. Bureau. "Every species is different, [but] what varies between insects is the chitin-level of the shell — chitin is not digestible, it's a fiber source," says Dr. Bureau, adding that there might be some beneficial properties to consuming small amounts of chitin, though it has limited nutritional value. Chitin and other insect proteins are also found in the shells of crustaceans like shrimp, crab and lobster, and the scales of fish, and some people who have allergies to seafood may also be allergic to insect shells. Dr Bureau notes that there hasn't been a lot of research done on the nutritional benefits of eating insects for humans; most of the existing projects have been in the field of animal nutrition.
An important consideration, which affects an insect's fat content (and fatty-acid composition) for example, is what they're fed by the producer — grains, vegetable by-products, food-processing by-products are common options. "Buying from a reputable producer, somewhere you can check what they're doing and can call their helpline will be the best thing," suggests Dr. Bureau.
Are they a sustainable food option?
The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization released a document in 2013 titled "Edible Insects: Future prospects for food and feed security" which notes that "insects are healthy, nutritious alternatives to mainstream staples such as chicken, pork, beef and even fish," can be reared with fewer resources thanks to their "high feed conversion efficiency," and "insects promoted as food emit considerably fewer greenhouse gases than most livestock."
Entomo Farms, according to Goldin, is "an extremely clean operation" where the insects receive "a basic grain diet and water" and there are no "pesticides, insecticides, steroids, or any medications." And every part of the insect is used — even the frass, or insect excreta, is sold as fertilizer.
What kinds of insects are available at grocery stores and online?
While certain restaurants across the country — such as El Catrin in Toronto, Ta Chido Snack Bar Mexicain in Montreal and The Hooded Merganser in Penticton, B.C. — have been serving insects like crickets and grasshoppers for a number of years, they've only recently become more widely available at the consumer grocery level.
In Toronto, McEwan Gourmet Grocery carries Näak cricket bars and Gryllies cricket-protein pasta sauce. According to Bachoumis, the chain's retail GM, these types of products with insect ingredients are becoming more widely popular and available because they're seen as a healthy option for people who "are looking for alternative, protein-based products."
"People are starting to bake more with it, they're using it on toppings of salads," says Bachoumis, referring to cricket powder and seasoned whole crickets as examples. Customers might first approach a cricket-protein bar with curiosity, but according to Bachoumis it's the "health factor" that keeps them buying more. "It's got high protein, there's iron in it," he says, noting that the bars "don't taste any different" than other flavoured energy bars.
Entomo Farms currently offers cricket and mealworm-based products to manufacturers and direct to consumers. "In the insect world, there are thousands of edible insects. [Crickets and mealworms] are the two mainstream ones for reasons that involve husbandry, what people are used to, what's being done in the world — that's essentially why we started with these two," says Goldin, noting that the company will likely rear other types of insects in the future.
Interestingly, Entomo Farms offers both processed and whole insects. "We thought nobody would be interested in the whole-seasoned insect or the plain whole-roasted insect, but actually, to our surprise, it's a much bigger part of our business than we thought it would be," says Goldin. "I don't know if it's the multicultural nature of Canada or the open-mindedness of our population, but we see that trend internationally … where I think people are reacquainting themselves with what it means for food to be icky or not icky." And there are other exciting consumer products in development; the company is working with large food manufacturers on "everything from hamburger patties to chips [to] protein bars and pasta," says Goldin.
Ready to try some insects? These products from Canadian companies across the country are currently available.
Choco Pack Energy Bars, $39.48 for 12, Näak
Barbeque Mealworms, $20.40, Entomo Farms
President's Choice 100% Cricket Powder, $14.99, Loblaws
Energy Bars & Protein Powders Sample Pack, $54, BiTE
Crick Chips, $6, Camola
Truc Nguyen is a Toronto-based writer, editor and stylist. Follow her at @trucnguyen.