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How Insects Could Completely Change the Way We Approach Protein

Published June 23, 2020 | Updated October 4, 2021 | Victoria Dmitruczyk

approaches to alternative protein

When I was in the first grade, I had a friend, who we’ll call Timmy.

Timmy was an interesting character, and he had this need to really try and stand out. However, he did so not by playing sports, or by doing well in school, but by eating random materials he found around our school.

Everyone knew Timmy had this reputation, and as first-graders, we didn’t really care what he ate or where it came from.

However, that all changed one fateful day in spring, when rather than trying to eat a pencil, he ate a potato bug (a pill bug). From this one incident, his reputation as a normal first-grader was absolutely tarnished. All the kids where absolutely disgusted by the idea of consuming bugs.

We see that culture translate towards us today. We don’t eat bugs. It sounds like something that one of your super outdoorsy friends would do.

But, what if we did? What if eating bugs as a source of protein was the norm?

Slowly, we’re seeing this mindset shift towards a future where rather than eating meat, we consume insect-based products. However, we still have a long way to go, and a lot of cognitive dissonance to tackle.

🥩 What’s Wrong With Our Modern Forms of Meat?

To dig the knife in, here are some statistics that highlight just how bad the meat production crisis is:

greenhouse gas emissions by type of meat

Greenhouse gas emissions per calorie for a variety of agricultural goods. Note that here, meat overpowers every other source in terms of its gge output, with beef emitting 4x higher than chicken or pork.

… And I could go on.

To summarize: The longer we continue to produce meat, the bigger and more significant our climate impact becomes.

There’s clearly a problem with our meat. However, the agriculture industry powers our world, especially in developing countries. It doesn’t make sense to abandon it. This would mean abandoning the 1 billion+ people involved in agricultural-related work around the globe, making up 3% of the world’s GDP.

This means that we can’t completely eliminate the production of meat. But is there another option?

👋 Say Hello to Your New Best Friend: Alternative Protein

We can’t just tell people: “don’t eat meat” and have everyone actually follow through.

So, how can we get rid of meat’s impact without actually getting rid of meat?

For a while, we’ve been trying to modify the food we produce by introducing things like rennet, preservatives, and insulin. However, within the last 20 years, the field of Alternative Proteins has grown exponentially.

In a nutshell, Alternative Proteins Involve:

Using various emerging technologies and synthetic biology to design and manufacture alternatives to the tissues, fats, and proteins that conventional agriculture produces.

This isn’t just one specific product. There are a variety of subsections and different areas ranging from something as ‘futuristic’ as growing meat from a test tube and 3D printing food, to something as ‘simple’ as converting all meat to plant-based products.

All of these innovations are exciting, but, let’s take a look into something that’s already being used as protein across the world, insect-based foods.

🦗 Insects Are Gross. Why Should we Even Consider Eating Them?

* Now, when we prepare insects as a source of protein, it’s not as if we’re actually just plucking them from the air and eating them raw (although this is an option), but, more on that in a bit.

When you really dig deep into the world of consuming insects for food, you notice that it literally doesn’t make sense not to be eating them. They have virtually have everything we need nutritionally need to survive and thrive.

There are a variety of bugs that are beneficial to eat, ranging from grasshoppers to mealworms to beetles.

For the sake of evaluating the nutritional value, let’s take a look at crickets, since they’re pretty popular in the insect-based foods space. All bugs will vary in terms of the benefits they provide.

For a 100 grams of crickets…

  • You’ll get 60 g of protein. In comparison, an identical serving of chicken will give you 31 g, and dried beef will give you 41 grams.
  • You’ll get your dosage of all nine essential amino acids, which are needed for things like the building of proteins and synthesis of hormones and neurotransmitters. This makes crickets the perfect source of alternative protein.
  • You’ll obtain a large amount of the omega acids, including the Omega-3s and Omega-6s.
  • You’ll receive extremely high levels of vitamin B12. Depending on how it’s produced, 100g of crickets can give you up to 1,587.6% of your daily minimum intake.
  • You’ll receive a significant amount of vitamins, minerals, and other key nutrients.
  • 80% of a cricket is digestible. The next best competitor, the chicken, is only 50% digestible and offers way less nutritional value.

We see positive trends with other bugs as well. Mealworms, for example, are an amazing source of fibre.

It’s safe to say that the nutritional value of insects is pretty darn great, but, what’s even MORE impressive is how sustainable their production is, especially when compared to conventional farming.

🚜 Farming in a Way You’ve Never ‘Herd’ of Before

If we want to intake our necessary amounts of (live-species based) protein while minimizing our ecological impact, we need to be eating and producing insects.

Let’s use crickets as an example once again:

water requirements for beef versus crickets

Water Required for the Cultivation of Beef: The Cultivation of Crickets

In order to produce one pound of crickets, we only need 0.45 gallons of water. Beef literally requires 2400x that amount. Insects can become fully hydrated from the food they’re consuming, and thus, require much less water.

land requirements for beef versus crickets

Total land required for beef compared to land required for crickets. You can learn more about the specific land requirements for cattle here.

Cultivating insects also uses much less land than traditional farming. Whereas the production of a single pound beef requires around 200 m² of land, crickets only require 15 m², a notable difference.

Cows and similar animals require a lot of land because their feed comes from pastures. However, crickets, because of their smaller size and nutritional requirements, they take up significantly less space.

feed requirements for beef versus crickets

Total Feed Required for Cattle:Insects

Finally, crickets use much less feed than other sources of protein. For one pound of crickets, only 2.1 pounds of feed. Initially, this might sound large, however, cows require 25 pounds of feed for one pound of beef.

Other insects have similar environmental benefits as well.

🐛 Why Aren’t We Already Eating Bugs?

Back in the day, a couple hundred years ago, individuals living in Europe were living in cold climates, which means they had to get their protein from actual mammals. When they travelled to the Americas and saw Indigenous individuals consuming bugs, it was labelled as ‘primitive’, even though insect-foods are extremely nutritious.

Around Asia, Africa, and Latin America, eating bugs is seen as normal. A household in Kinshasa, Congo, eats around 300g of caterpillars a week.

However, just because other people consume insects, doesn’t mean that That there are absolutely no concerns in the world of entomophagy. The biggest concern currently is solely the fact that consuming bugs simply seems disgusting, however, there are a couple other issues that should be considered as well:

  • Just as with other sources of nutrition, insects do have the potential to trigger allergic reactions.
  • Wild insects feed on decaying substances, which can contain harmful bacteria. If they’re properly prepared, this shouldn’t be a problem.
  • There’s not much information out there regarding the use of pesticides when raising insects. If we want to mass-produce protein this way, we need to look further into this.
  • The exoskeletons of insects have been found to have small amounts of ‘anti-nutrients’ (things like tannins and lectins). However, compared to plant-based foods, these levels are relatively low.
  • For individuals obtaining insects from the wild, they have the risk of consuming toxins. Since certain animals require toxins to ward off predators, not knowing how to properly handle these things can end up harming someone.

Note: These ‘cons’ are low-risk. We also see the same problems come up concerning meat and grain.

Although Timmy was pretty much shunned within the community of first-graders, maybe he was onto something.

It literally doesn’t make sense for us not to be eating bugs.

We’ve grown up surrounded by the idea that bugs are absolutely disgusting, and have had it repeated towards us as we’ve aged. But, times are changing.

We’re noticing the problems that come up with our traditional approaches to food, and forcing change to occur.

Just maybe, insect-based foods are going to completely revolutionize the way we approach protein. They’re a tried and true source. They’re great. And they are the future.

🔑 Key Takeaways

  • Insects are the perfect source of alternative protein, high in protein content itself, containing all the essential amino acids, and a plethora of other vitamins and minerals.
  • The process of cultivating insects is significantly better for the environment than traditional protein production. It’s more feed, water, and land efficient.
  • Around the world, a variety of communities regularly consume insects.
  • There are certain concerns regarding the production of insects for protein, however, similar concerns also present when considering the production of plants and meat.

👋 Hey! If you liked my article and would like to read more of my work, feel free to follow me on Medium! I’m also always thankful to hear feedback so, if you would like to get in contact with me (I don’t bite, shoot me a message!), connect with me on LinkedIn!

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About the Authors
Victoria Dmitruczyk is currently diving into the intersection of AI, energy, and cellular agriculture. Now, for a pun. What’s a wind turbine’s favourite colour? Blew.