Insects — a new nutritious ingredient for school lunches?

A new United Nations report titled “Edible insects: Future prospects for food and feed security” says that at least 2 billion people on Earth eat insects and that they are a nutritious, environmentally sound way to feed people.

The report, published by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, was the first time that the FAO documented all aspects of the insect food and feed value chain, and includes original research from around the world.

The report lists the most commonly eaten insects today:

* beetles (Coleoptera) 31 percent of insects eaten
* caterpillars (Lepidoptera) 18 percent
* bees, wasps and ants (Hymenoptera) 14 percent
* grasshoppers, locusts and crickets (Orthoptera) 13 percent
* cicadas, leafhoppers, planthoppers, scale insects and true bugs (Hemiptera) 10 percent
* termites (Isoptera) 3 percent
* dragonflies (Odonata) 3 percent
* flies (Diptera) 2 percent
* other orders 5 percent.

It says:

The environmental benefits of rearing insects for food and feed are founded on the high feed conversion efficiency of insects. Crickets, for example, require only 2 kilograms of feed for every 1 kilogram of bodyweight gain. In addition, insects can be reared on organic side-streams (including human and animal waste) and can help reduce environmental contamination. Insects are reported to emit fewer greenhouse gases and less ammonia than cattle or pigs, and they require significantly less land and water than cattle rearing. Compared with mammals and birds, insects may also pose less risk of transmitting zoonotic infections to humans, livestock and wildlife, although this topic requires further research.

and

Insects are a highly nutritious and healthy food source with high fat, protein, vitamin, fibre and mineral content. The nutritional value of edible insects is highly variable because of  the wide range of edible insect species. Even within the same group of species, nutritional value may differ depending on the metamorphic stage of the insect, the habitat in which it lives, and its diet. For example, the composition of unsaturated omega-3 and six fatty acids in mealworms is comparable with that in fish (and higher than in cattle and pigs), and the protein, vitamin and mineral content of mealworms is similar to that in fish and meat.

The report also says that governments should promote the creation of a new sector that develop insects as an alternative to conventional food and feed industries, including the creation of incentives aimed at the private sector for investment and technical development.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss · May 13, 2013