Try A Meal Of Bugs

Dr. Jaspreet Kaur, Zoology Department, Maitreyi College, University of Delhi

2019-05-26 08:11:05

Figure 1. Three major components of water footprint: blue, green and gray footprints. Image drawn by author with image of foot taken from creative common source.

Figure 1. Three major components of water footprint: blue, green and gray footprints. Image drawn by author with image of foot taken from creative common source.

"Really good flavor", said actress Angelina Jolie, after eating the fried leg of a spider in Cambodia while promoting for her latest film entitled “First They Killed My Father”. She is among the few westerners to break the negative attitude towards these so called ‘creepy creatures’. The rise of interest in entomophagy (from entomos, insect and phagein, to eat) as an alternate source of animal protein has resulted from the awareness about their nutritional value and low environmental production costs. The purpose of this article is to increase the appreciation of insects as a source of food nutrients.


The western societies rely heavily on the conventional meat sources like beef, poultry, and pork, which have a particularly large water requirement. This consumption of water for production of consumer goods is usually quantified in terms of ‘water footprint’. This concept is similar to ecological or carbon footprints but indicates the use of water instead the use of land or fossil fuels.Water footprint is basically the total volume of freshwater used in a direct or indirect manner, for the production or consumption of goods and services, measured over various steps of a production chain like harvesting, processing, packaging and distribution. It consists of 3 component footprints: blue water or the volume of water that is consumed for production of goods and services (or evaporated) from blue water resources like surface and groundwater, green water or volume of water used by plants from precipitation and soil moisture (green water resources). It also includes the amount of water lost in evapotranspiration and thirdly, gray water or the volume of water required to dilute the pollutants in order to achieve the accepted water quality standards (Figure 1). Out of these three components, obviously, the blue water footprint is the serious cause of concern due to large consumption of water resources for domestic and industrial purposes.

Certainly, the production of animal products requires lot of water and land. On average, agriculture accounts for about 70 % of global freshwater resources and a kilogram of beef takes up to 15tonnes of water to produce (Food & Agriculture Organization of United Nations, FAO, 2017). This also includes the significant amount of water required to produce animal feed. Additionally, livestockis also a majorcontributor of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions like CO2, CH4, N2O etc. Thus, with the increasing global population, this condition is going to deteriorate and climate cost will keep on rising on our natural water resources. In such a scenario, we seriously need to rethink our current food patterns and hence incorporating insects in our diet needs to be promoted as an alternative source of protein for humans and animals. I know it sounds disgusting to eat insects because they are usually associated with diseases and decaying matter. But, insects are the unique ‘superfood’ which are rich sources of energy, protein, fat, minerals and vitamins (Table 1).Also, they beat the energy content of other fresh meat sources (per fresh weight) except pork due to its high fat content[1].

Historically speaking, insects have been an integral part of the staple diet ofnumerous indigenous groups living inJapan, Kenya, Thailand, Indonesia, West Africa, Mexico, several areas of Braziletc. and the tradition continues with insects being consumed at various stages of their life cycles. The commoninsects, which are consumed,include bees, wasps, ants, grasshoppers, locusts, crickets, leafhoppers, scale insects, dragonflies, caterpillars, flies, etc. They can be eaten raw, fried, boiled or even roasted. Interestingly, the habit of entomophagy proved to be a successful method of crop pest control in Thailand after a locust outbreak happened in 1978. After consuming locusts in order to protect their crops, these insects later became popular snacks and due to their increased market value and high demand, people started growing crops specifically to feed locusts (Dobermann et al., 2017).Similarly, in India, the Bodo tribe of Assam considers larvae of silkworms as a delicacy along with eggs of red ant which taste like egg yolks. Members of these tribes also consume caterpillars, termites, grasshoppers, crickets and beetles.

Table 1. Protein, fat and energy content of some insects. Source: Dobermann et al., 2017.



(% dry matter)


(% dry matter)


(kcal/100 g)


(adult beetles,larvae)




Diptera (flies)




Hemiptera (true bugs)




Hymenoptera (ants, bees)




Lepidoptera (butterflies, moths)




Odonata (dragonflies, damselflies)




Orthoptera (crickets,grasshoppers, locusts)





Also, what is more intriguing is the significant difference in the water footprints of commercially produced insects and animals. This difference should be understood with respect to the percentage of the animal, which is edible. For example, insects are considered to be 80-100 % edible in contrast to animals which are only 40-50 % edible (Figure 2).

Figure 2. A comparison of the amount of land, feed and water needed to produce 1 kg of live animal weight and percent of the animal, which is edible. Image taken from a creative common source[2].

Moreover, insects are more efficient than livestock in terms of their ‘feed conservation efficiency’or the capacity of an animal to convert the feed mass into increased body mass and is represented as kg of feed per kg of weight gain. This feed conservation efficiency also considers amount of water consumed by the animal and insects have higher feed conservation efficiency because they are cold-blooded in nature and rely on their environment to controlmetabolic processes, such as body temperature in contrast to warm-blooded mammals and birds.

In addition to nutritional and environmental benefits of insect eating, there are economic benefits also. Around 70 % of the production cost of livestock pertains to the use of animal feed which is a protein-rich diet consisting of meat, fish or soya bean. Thus, addition of protein-rich insects in the diet of animals can substantially decrease the production cost of animal husbandry industry and is currently being practiced by smallholder farms in Africa and Asia.

But, despite the innumerable benefits and opportunities provided by the insects, majority of human population has failed to embrace entomophagy. The major obstacles in acceptance of entomophagy as an alternate source to meat include psychological, cultural and medical barriers. In western countries as well as in developing countries like India, poor insects are viewed as ‘dirty, disgusting and dangerous’. This negative attitude towards insects has been further propagated through TV shows like ‘Fear Factor’ and ‘I’m A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here!’, wherein the contestants are asked to eat raw insects or share company with them in order to defeat their fear and show their daring. Many insects like maggots, cockroaches or louses and bedbugs are sources of repulsion because of their association with dead-bodies or wounds or lack of personal hygiene in addition to scorpions and spiders, which are considered dangerous. So, people who only have negative connotations about insects miss out on many other insects like ants, bees, butterflies, and ladybirds, which may not be necessarily the objects of disgust. In fact, they give useful products like honey, Royal Jelly, propolis (bee glue), etc. which are used by people in western societies as well.

To conclude, insect eating or entomophagy could present a good alternative source of proteins and nutrients like unsaturated and essential fatty acids, vitamins, fibers and minerals. In addition, research has revealed that insects usually have small environmental footprint with higher economic benefits than other livestock protein sources. Although the same research highlights the negative attitude of some people towards insects which are considered as visual metaphors of disgust by them. But, keeping in mind the grave impact of anthropogenic activities on Earth’s ecosystems and climate cost of conventional meat sources, insect based consumption has been suggested as more sustainable with less carbon dioxide emissions and lower water footprint and a healthy way of consuming animal protein, with high economic value. With proper food safety regulations, it is possible to bring insects into the mainstream of food industry. In the end, I would like to quote Shami Radia, co-founder of ‘Grub’, a new food brand which sells edible insects commercially in United Kingdom, "Behavior can be changed, prawns are ugly but taste delicious and there's no reason why eating insects can't be normalized"


1. Rumpold BA & Schlüter OK,Nutritional composition andsafety aspects of edible insects, Molecular Nutrition and Food Research, Vol.57,pp.802–23, 2013. 2. Dobermann D, Swift JA and Field LM,Nutrition Bulletin published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd on behalf of British Nutrition Foundation Nutrition Bulletin, Vol. 42, pp. 293–308, 2017.

Creative Common Source used for images: