Food accessibility and insecurity are pertinent issues that affect millions of people across the globe. Our current food systems generate large amounts of waste and enable food inequalities, and continually relying on these systems will only worsen these issues. In order to mend these systems and foster nutritious and equitable options for affected populations, we must prioritize sustainable development. 

A considerable problem within these systems is the substantial carbon footprint attributed to meat production. A mere 3.5 ounces of beef releases, on average, over one hundred pounds of environmentally harmful gases into the atmosphere, highlighting the need for more plant-based products — but what if we had a tiny solution to this big problem?

A six-legged treat?

Transitioning from eating meat to insects is no small feat, as our taste buds have yet to become acclimated to crunchy six-legged creatures that taste nothing like a juicy piece of beef. The residents of Madagascar, however, found a succulent solution that might do the trick — the sakondry bug. 

In 2009, Montclair State University anthropology professor Conti Borgerson visited Madagascar while working on her PhD. While she was there, she discovered that many Malagasy locals indulged in fried sakondry bugs, which, according to her, didn’t taste far off from bacon. The contrast between their crunchy shell and meaty inside reminded her of crispy pork belly and was eminently more satisfying than she had expected. 

The main issue, however, was the difficulty in finding these specific insects. To resolve this, she and her team got to work and discovered that by planting the sakondry bug’s host plant — the antaky bean plant — they could expand and establish colonies for the insect population. These six-legged creatures provided the Malagasy people with an accessible source of protein and micronutrients.

This shows great promise in improving the lack of nourishing food options that the Masoala people face, and similar solutions could greatly enhance the nutrition and food security of hundreds of millions of people.

The protein problem

The lack of certain nutrients, such as protein, in meatless diets raises concerns about whether or not meat alternatives can provide the same amount of macro- and micro-nutrients as the real thing, but how well does insect protein compete with that of livestock? 

As it turns out, these little creatures are packed with nutrients and can contain the same amount of protein per portion as meat. A paper published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition investigated whether the nutritional values of some commercially available insects, such as crickets and larvae, were comparable to those of chicken, beef, and pork. It found that both a 100g serving of adult crickets and a 100g serving of pork contained exactly 20.1 grams of protein. The amount of protein in these insects was even more than what was found in the same serving size of chicken, which came out to be 19.9 grams of protein.

The nutritional advantages of insect consumption don’t end there. When it comes to minerals, bugs surpass beef by a long shot, with crickets containing close to 200 per cent more iron than beef. Grasshoppers, crickets, and mealworms can all contain significantly higher levels of minerals than sirloin, providing you with copious amounts of iron, zinc, copper, and magnesium, and demonstrating the possibility of having a highly nutritious diet. 

Preparing insects for human taste buds

One of the most apparent issues that need to be tackled with insect farming for human consumption is convincing individuals to get past the ‘ick’ factor. From soy sauce larvae in Japan to agave worm tacos in Mexico, people of various cultures already enjoy consuming insects. But persuading others to do the same may be nothing short of challenging. 

This obstacle is exactly what chemists in South Korea are trying to overcome. They found that, by adding some sugars to cooked mealworms, they could mimic the smell of meat. The way in which these insects are cooked could also alter their aroma. In Hee Cho, a South Korean chemist at Wonkwang University analyzed various cooking processes and discovered that the method of preparation affects the taste of insects. The process of frying mealworms gave off a meat or seafood-like aroma, whereas steaming them produced a sweet scent. 

Eating them whole, however, might not be for everyone. Luckily, there is an assortment of different ways in which insects can be consumed, which makes sustainable feasting more enjoyable and appetizing. A simple way to reap the benefits of insect protein without having to fry or steam them is to grind them up, creating a protein powder that can be added to a variety of dishes. You can fold it into a batter, mix it in with a stew or blend it into your morning smoothie, adding a mildly nutty flavor without having to come face to face with your six-legged meal. 

So next time you’re craving some barbeque chicken, try opting for barbeque crickets instead — it just might help the planet.