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Entomophagy (from Greek ἔντομον éntomon, "insect", and φᾰγεῖν phagein, "to eat") is the consumption of insects as food. The eggs, larvae, pupae and adults of certain insect species have been eaten by man since prehistoric times and continue to be an item of the human nutrition in modern times. While insects are eaten by many animals, the term "entomophagy" is generally used to refer to human consumption of insects; animals that eat insects are known as insectivores. There are also some species of carnivorous plants that derive nutrients from insects.
Human insect-eating is common to cultures in most parts of the world, including North, Central and South America; and Africa, Asia, Australia and New Zealand. Over 1,000 species of insects are known to be eaten in 80% of the world's nations. The total number of ethnic groups recorded to practice entomophagy is around 3,000. However, in some societies insect-eating is uncommon or even taboo. Today insect eating is rare in the developed world, but insects remain a popular food in many developing regions of Latin America, Africa, Asia and Oceania. There are some companies that are trying to introduce insects into Western diets.
Entomophagy is sometimes defined broadly to include the practice of eating arthropods that are not insects, such as arachnids (tarantulas mainly) and myriapods (centipedes mainly). The term is not used for the consumption of other arthropods, specifically crustaceans like crabs, lobsters and shrimp. Insects are eaten by many animals, but the term is generally used to refer to human consumption of insects; animals that eat insects are known as insectivores. There are also some species of carnivorous plants that derive nutrients from insects.
Some of the more popular insects and arachnids eaten around the world include crickets, cicadas, grasshoppers, ants, various beetle grubs (such as mealworms), the larvae of the darkling beetle or rhinoceros beetle, various species of caterpillar (such as bamboo worms, mopani worms, silkworms and waxworms), scorpions and tarantulas. There are 1,417 known species of arthropods, including arachnids, that are edible to humans.
Recent assessments of the potential of large-scale entomophagy have led some experts to suggest entomophagy as a potential alternative protein source to animal livestock, citing possible benefits including greater efficiency, lower resource use, increased food security, and environmental and economic sustainability.
Insects, nematodes and fungi that obtain their nutrition from insects are sometimes termed entomophagous, especially in the context of biological control applications. These may also be more specifically classified into predators, parasites or parasitoids, while viruses, bacteria and fungi that grow on or inside insects may also be termed "entomopathogenic". (See also Entomopathogenic fungi)
Before humans had tools to hunt or farm, insects may have represented an important part of their diet. Evidence has been found analyzing coprolites from caves in USA and Mexico. Coprolites in caves in the Ozark Mountains were found to contain ants, beetle larvae, lice, ticks, and mites. Evidence suggests that evolutionary precurors of Homo sapiens were likely also entomophagous. Insectivory also features to various degrees amongst extant primates, such as marmosets and tamarins, and some researchers suggest that the earliest primates were nocturnal, arboreal insectivores. Similarly, most extant apes are insectivorous to some degree.
Cave paintings in Altamira, north Spain, dated to about 30,000 to 9,000 BC, depict the collection of wild bee nests, suggesting a possibly entomophagous society. Cocoons of wild silkworm (Theophilia religiosae) were found in ruins in the Shanxi province of China, from 2,000 to 2,500 years BC. The cocoons were discovered with large holes, suggesting the pupae were eaten. Many ancient entomophagy practices have changed little over time compared with other agricultural practices, leading to the development of modern traditional entomophagy.
Entomophagy can be divided into two categories: insects used as a source of nutrients and insects as condiments. Some insects are eaten as larvae or pupae, others as adults. There are a plethora of cultures that embrace the consumption of insects. These include 235 species of butterflies and moths, 344 species of beetles, 313 species of ants, bees and wasps, 239 species of grasshoppers, crickets and cockroaches, 39 species of termites, as well as 20 species of dragonflies, amongst others. Other commonly eaten insects are termites, cicadas and dragonflies. Insects are known to be eaten in 80% of the world's nations.
Insect-based ingredients are beginning to be incorporated into more mainstream foods such as protein bars and baked goods. The primary vehicle for this so far has been powder made from insects utilized as an ingredient (often referred to as insect flour, cricket flour, cricket powder or whole cricket powder). For example, one company in the United States called All Things Bugs LLC is currently manufacturing hundreds of pounds of whole cricket powder and selling wholesale to other small startup companies who utilize it in protein bars, baked goods and other products.
Eating insects has not typically been adopted in the West. However, a few companies are aiming to introduce products made using insects. Exo launched a Kickstarter on July 30, 2013 to make protein bars made with cricket flour. They were successfully funded at more than 200% of their original goal.
The commercial exploitation of food insects has led to their decline in some places.
The consumption of Atta laevigata is traditional in some regions of Colombia and northeast Brazil. In southern Africa, a species of moth called Gonimbrasia belina is found throughout much of the region; its large caterpillar, the mopani or mopane worm, is a source of food protein. In Australia, Witchetty grub is considered a source of food amongst the Indigenous population.
Entomophagy has been featured on some reality television shows, such as Fear Factor. Barrington Hall, a former student cooperative at U.C. Berkeley held an annual insect banquet for many years until the co-op was closed down in 1990. The New York Entomological Society held a Centennial Banquet on Wednesday, May 20, 1992 at the Explorers Club in New York. The theme for the evening banquet was the use of insects as food. Appetizers and desserts featured insects in their preparations. The Explorers Club itself holds an annual dinner at New York's Waldorf-Astoria Hotel featuring a wide array of unusual dishes including many featuring insects. Theme park operator Six Flags Inc, based in New York, staged a contest as part of a promotion leading up to Halloween in which it also offered customers free entry or line-jumping advantages if they ate a live Madagascar hissing cockroach; the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) opposed the overall promotion. "Insects do not deserve to be eaten alive especially for a gratuitous marketing gimmick," PETA spokeswoman Jackie Vergerio told Reuters.
There are also restaurants that serve insects to the public on a regular basis. For example, two places in Vancouver, Canada, offer cricket-based items. Vij's Restaurant has parathas that are made from roasted crickets that were ground into a flour. Its sister restaurant, Rangoli Restaurant, offers pizza that was made by sprinkling whole roasted crickets on naan dough.
Insects as food and feed emerge as an especially relevant issue in the twenty-first century due to the rising cost of animal protein, food and feed insecurity, environmental pressures, population growth and increasing demand for protein among the middle classes. At the 2013 International Conference on Forests for Food Security and Nutrition, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations released a publication titled "Edible insects - Future prospects for food and feed security" describing the contribution of insects to food security. It shows the many traditional and potential new uses of insects for direct human consumption and the opportunities for and constraints to farming them for food and feed. It examines the body of research on issues such as insect nutrition and food safety, the use of insects as animal feed, and the processing and preservation of insects and their products.
The intentional cultivation of insects and edible arthropods for human food, referred to as minilivestock, is now emerging in animal husbandry as an ecologically sound concept. Several analyses have found entomophagy to be a more environmentally friendly alternative to traditional animal livestocking.
Edible insects have long been used by ethnic groups in Asia, Africa, Mexico and South America as cheap and sustainable sources of protein, and the major role of entomophagy in human food security is well-documented. Up to 2,086 species are consumed by 3,071 ethnic groups in 130 countries. While more attention is needed to fully assess the potential of edible insects, they provide a natural source of essential carbohydrates, proteins, fats, minerals and vitamins and offer an opportunity to bridge the gap in protein consumption between poor and wealthy nations but also to lessen the Ecological footprint. Many insects contain abundant stores of lysine, an amino acid deficient in the diets of many people who depend heavily on grain. Some argue that the combination of increasing land use pressure, climate change, and food grain shortages due to the use of corn as a biofuel feedstock will cause serious challenges for attempts to meet future protein demand.
In Thailand, two types of edible insects (cricket and palm weevil larvae) are commonly farmed in the north and south respectively. Cricket-farming approaches throughout the northeast are similar and breeding techniques have not changed much since the technology was introduced 15 years ago. Small-scale cricket farming, involving a small number of breeding tanks, is rarely found today and most of the farms are medium- or large-scale enterprises. Community cooperatives of cricket farmers have been established to disseminate information on technical farming, marketing and business issues, particularly in northeastern and northern Thailand. Cricket farming has developed into a significant animal husbandry sector and is the main source of income for a number of farmers. In 2013, there are approximately 20 000 farms operating 217 529 rearing pens. Total production over the last six years (1996-2011) has averaged around 7 500 tonnes per year.
In 2012, Dr. Aaron T. Dossey announced that his company, All Things Bugs, had been named a Grand Challenges Explorations winner by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Grand Challenges Explorations provides funding to individuals with ideas for new approaches to public health and development. The research project is titled "Good Bugs: Sustainable Food for Malnutrition in Children". Director of pediatric nutrition at the University of Alabama at Birmingham Frank Franklin has argued that since low calories and low protein are the main causes of death for approximately 5 million children annually, insect protein formulated into a ready-to-use therapeutic food similar to Nutriset's Plumpy'Nut could have potential as a relatively inexpensive solution to malnutrition. In 2009, Dr. Vercruysse from Ghent University in Belgium has proposed that insect protein can be used to generate hydrolysates, exerting both ACE inhibitory and antioxidant activity, which might be incorporated as multifunctional ingredient into functional foods. Additionally, edible insects can provide a good source of unsaturated fats, thereby helping to reduce coronary disease.
Edible insects can provide economic, nutritional, and ecological advantages to the indigenous populations that commonly raise them. For instance, the mopane worm of South Africa provides a "flagship taxon" for the conservation of mopane woodlands. Some researchers have argued that edible insects provide a unique opportunity for insect conservation by combining issues of food security and forest conservation through a solution which includes appropriate habitat management and recognition of local traditional knowledge and enterprises. However, senior FAO forestry officer Patrick Durst claims that "Among forest managers, there is very little knowledge or appreciation of the potential for managing and harvesting insects sustainably. On the other hand, traditional forest-dwellers and forest-dependent people often possess remarkable knowledge of the insects and their management."
Similarly, Julieta Ramos-Elorduy has stated that rural populations, who primarily "search, gather, fix, commercialize and store this important natural resource", do not exterminate the species which are valuable to their lives and livelihoods. According to the FAO, many experts see income opportunities for rural people involved in cultivation. However, adapting food technology and safety standards to insect-based foods would enhance these prospects by providing a clear legal foundation for insect-based foods.
Some researchers have proposed entomophagy as a solution to policy incoherence created by traditional agriculture, by which conditions are created which favor a few insect species, which then multiply and are termed "pests". In parts of Mexico, Sphenarium purpurascens is controlled by its capture and use as food. Such strategies allow decreased use of pesticide and create a source of income for farmers totaling nearly $3000 per family. Some argue that pesticide use is economically inefficient due to its destruction of insects which may contain up to 75 percent animal protein in order to save crops containing no more than 14 percent protein.
The methods of matter assimilation and nutrient transport used by insects make insect cultivation a more efficient method of converting consumed matter into biomass than rearing traditional livestock; more than 10 times more plant nutrients are needed to produce one kilogram of meat than one kilogram of insect biomass. The spatial usage and water requirements are only a fraction of that required to produce the same mass of food with cattle farming. Production of 150g of grasshopper meat requires only very little water, while cattle requires 3290 liters to produce the same amount of beef. This indicates that lower natural resource use and ecosystem strain could be expected from insects at all levels of the supply chain. Edible insects also display exponentially faster growth and breeding cycles than traditional livestock. An analysis of the carbon intensity of five edible insect species conducted at the University of Wageningen, Netherlands found that "the average daily gain (ADG) of the five insect species studied was 4.0-19.6 percent, the minimum value of this range being close to the 3.2% reported for pigs, whereas the maximum value was 6 times higher. Compared to cattle (0.3%), insect ADG values were much higher." Additionally, all insect species studied produced much lower amounts of ammonia than conventional livestock, though further research is needed to determine the long-term impact. The authors conclude that insects could serve as a more environmentally friendly source of dietary protein.
Insects generally have a higher food conversion efficiency than more traditional meats, measured as efficiency of conversion of ingested food, or ECI. While many insects can have an energy input to protein output ratio of around 4:1, raised livestock has a ratio closer to 54:1. This is partially due to the fact that feed first needs to be grown for most traditional livestock. Additionally endothermic (warm-blooded) vertebrates need to use a significantly greater amount of energy just to stay warm whereas ectothermic (cold blooded) plants or insects do not. An index which can be used as a measure is the Efficiency of conversion of ingested food to body substance: for example, only 10% of ingested food is converted to body substance by beef cattle, versus 19–31% by silkworms and 44% by German cockroaches. Studies concerning the house cricket (Acheta domesticus) provide further evidence for the efficiency of insects as a food source. When reared at 30°C or more and fed a diet of equal quality to the diet used to rear conventional livestock, crickets showed a food conversion twice as efficient as pigs and broiler chicks, four times that of sheep, and six times higher than steers (oxen) when losses in carcass trim and dressing percentage are counted.
Insects reproduce at a faster rate than beef animals. A female cricket can lay from 1,200 to 1,500 eggs in three to four weeks, while for beef the ratio is four breeding animals for each market animal produced. This gives house crickets a true food conversion efficiency almost 20 times higher than beef. For this reason and because of the essential amino acids content of insects, some people, on ecological grounds, propose the development of entomophagy to provide a major source of protein in human nutrition.
According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), animal agriculture makes a "very substantial contribution" to climate change, air pollution, land, soil and water degradation, land use concerns, deforestation and the reduction of biodiversity. The high growth and intensity of animal agriculture has caused ecological damage worldwide; with meat production predicted to double from now to 2050, maintaining the status quo's environmental impact would demand a 50 percent reduction of impacts per unit of output. As the FAO states, animal livestock "emerges as one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global."  Some researchers argue that establishing sustainable production systems will depend upon a large-scale replacement of traditional livestock with edible insects; such a shift would require a major change in Western perceptions of edible insects, pressure to conserve remaining habitats, and an economic push for food systems that incorporate insects into the supply chain.
In total, the emissions of the livestock sector account for 18 percent of total anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, a greater share than the transportation sector. Using the ratio between body growth realized and carbon production as an indicator of environmental impact, conventional agriculture practices entail substantial negative impacts as compared to entomophagy. The University of Wageningen analysis found that the CO2 production per kilogram of mass gain for the five insect species studied was 39-129% that of pigs and 12-54% that of cattle. This finding corroborates existing literature on the higher feed conversion efficiency of insects as compared to mammalian livestock. For four of the five species studied, GHG emission was "much lower than documented for pigs when expressed per kg of mass gain and only around 1% of the GHG emission for ruminants."
Animal livestock is the largest anthropogenic user of land. 26 percent of the Earth's ice-free terrestrial surface is occupied by grazing, while feedcrop production amounts to 33 percent of total arable land. Livestock production accounts for 70 percent of all agricultural land and 30 percent of the planet's surface. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, livestock activity such as overgrazing, erosion, and soil compaction, has been the primary cause of the degradation of 20 percent of the world's pastures and rangeland. Animal livestock is responsible for 64 percent of man-made ammonia emissions, which contribute significantly to acid rain. By extension, animal waste contributes to environmental pollution through nitrification and acidification of soil.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, 64 percent of the world's population is expected to live in water-stressed basins by 2025. A reassessment of human usage and treatment of water resources will likely become necessary in order to meet growing population needs. The FAO argues that the livestock sector is a major source of water pollution and loss of freshwater resources:
Researchers from Wageningen University and the FAO published an evaluation of the potential of edible insects as a protein source in the August 2012 issue of Food Control. The researchers found that "spore forming bacteria are a potential spoilage and safety risk" for both cooked and uncooked insect protein. While more study is needed before integration into the food supply, current data suggest that while edible insects must be processed with care, simple methods are available to prevent spoilage.
In general, many insects are herbivorous and less problematic than omnivores. Cooking is advisable in ideal circumstances since parasites of concern may be present. But pesticide use can make insects unsuitable for human consumption. Herbicides can accumulate in insects through bioaccumulation. For example when locust outbreaks are treated by spraying, people can no longer eat them. This may pose a problem since edible plants have been consumed by the locusts themselves.
In some cases, insects may be edible regardless of their toxicity. In the Carnia region of Italy, moths of the Zygaenidae family have been eaten by children despite their potential toxicity. The moths are known to produce hydrogen cyanide precursors in both larvae and adults. However, the ingluvies (or crop) of the adult moths contain cyanogenic chemicals in extremely low quantities along with high concentrations of sugar, making Zygaena a convenient supplementary source of sugar during the early summer. The moths are very common and easy to catch by hand, and the low cyanogenic content of the ingluvies make Zygaena a minimally risky seasonal delicacy.
Within Western culture, entomophagy (barring some food dyes, such as carmine) is seen as taboo. There are some exceptions. Casu marzu, for example, also called casu modde, casu cundhídu, or in Italian formaggio marcio, is a cheese made in Sardinia notable for being riddled with live insect larvae. Casu marzu means "rotten cheese" in Sardinian and is known colloquially as maggot cheese. A scene in the Italian film Mondo Cane (1962) features an insect banquet for shock effect, and a scene from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom features insects as part of a similar banquet for shock factor. Western avoidance of entomophagy coexists with the consumption of other invertebrates such as mollusks and the insects' close arthropod relatives crustaceans, and is not based on taste or food value.
Within Judaism, most insects are not considered kosher, with the exception of a few species of locust which are accepted by certain communities (see Kosher locust). Honey is, however, considered kosher.
Public health nutritionist Alan Dangour has argued that large-scale entomophagy in Western culture faces "extremely large" barriers, which are "perhaps currently even likely to be insurmountable." The anthropologist Marvin Harris has also suggested that the eating of insects is taboo in cultures that have other protein sources that require less work to obtain, such as poultry or cattle, though there are cultures which feature both animal husbandry and entomophagy. Examples can be found in Botswana, South Africa and Zimbabwe where strong cattle-raising traditions co-exist with entomophagy of insects like the mopane worm.
The Food and Agriculture Organization has displayed an interest in developing entomophagy on multiple occasions. In 2008, the FAO organized a conference to "discuss the potential for developing insects in the Asia and Pacific region.". According to Durst, FAO efforts in entomophagy will focus on regions in which entomophagy has been historically accepted but has recently experienced a decline in popularity.
In 2011, the European Commission issued a request for reports on the current use of insects as food, with the promise that reports from each European Union member state would serve to inform legislative proposals for the new process for novel foods. According to NPR, the European Union is investing more than 4 million dollars to research entomophagy as a human protein source.
In practice, it is not possible to eliminate pest insects from the human food chain. Insects are present in many foods, especially grains. Food laws in many countries do not prohibit insect parts in food, but rather, they limit the quantity. People in rice-eating regions, for example, typically ingest significant numbers of rice weevil (Sitophilus oryzae) larvae, and this has been suggested as an important source of vitamins.
3.1.2 Wheat flour shall be free from abnormal flavours, odours, and living insects. 3.1.3 Wheat flour shall be free from filth (impurities of animal origin, including dead insects) in amounts which may represent a hazard to human health.
According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's The Food Defect Action Levels booklet. Contamination on the average of less than 150 insect fragments per 100 grams of wheat flour poses no health hazard.
Other example of the maximum permissible levels of insect contamination in food products for humans, contamination below which level, poses no health hazard, are:
|Product||Type of insect contamination||Impermissible Level|
|Canned sweet corn||Insect larvae (corn ear worms or corn borers)||2 or more 3 mm or longer larvae, cast skins, larval or cast skin fragments, the aggregate length of insects or insect parts exceeds 12 mm in 24 pounds|
|Canned citrus fruit juices||Insects and insect eggs||5 or more Drosophila and other fly eggs per 250 ml or 1 or more maggots per 250 ml|
|Wheat flour||Insect filth||Average of 150 or more insect fragments per 100 grams|
|Frozen broccoli||Insects and mites||Average of 60 or more aphids and/or thrips and/or mites per 100 grams|
|Hops||Insects||Average of more than 2,500 aphids per 10 grams|
|Ground thyme||Insect filth||Average of 925 or more insect fragments per 10 grams|
|Ground nutmeg||Insect filth||Average of 100 or more insect fragments per 10 grams|
|Chocolate||Insect filth||Average of 60 or more insect fragments per 100 grams|
|Noodles||Insect filth||Average of 225 or more insect fragments per 225 gram|
|Peanut butter||Insect filth||Average of 30 or more insect fragments per 100 grams|
See source for information on other food products.
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