Chances are, you probably haven’t tucked into a plate of crickets but the truth is people have been eating them for thousands of years.
If you’re screwing up your nose at the thought, you might be surprised to know that up to 80 percent of the world’s population already eat species of insects. And more recently, crickets have emerged as a sustainable, high protein food source in Australia, the U.S. and parts of Europe.
“The word ‘crickets’ is a general term -- it’s part of Orthoptera, a group of insects that includes crickets, grasshoppers and locusts,” Dr Alan Yen, statewide research leader of invertebrate sciences for the Victorian government and associate professor at La Trobe University, told The Huffington Post Australia.
“Insects from Orthoptera have been eaten for a long time by different societies across the world -- there are different species depending on the location and a lot of the crickets now are only about one species, which is the domesticated house cricket,” Yen said.
The house cricket -- also known as Acheta domesticus -- is most likely to be native to south Asia but is bred across the world and used in pet feed and, more recently, milled into a flour for human consumption.
“A lot of companies now are converting those crickets into a flour and that flour is used as a food additive in a whole range of foods, such as pasta and cake mixes,” Yen said.
“This is quite recent but it’s becoming more popular and it’s available commercially,” Yen said. “Five years ago it would have been hard to find cricket flour.”
One company that is producing a cricket flour product is Exo, which makes protein bars in a variety of sweet and savoury flavours, from apple cinnamon to mango curry.
Completely weirded out? Before you make up your mind, you might want to consider these nutritional and sustainability factors.
“We think it's one of the most sustainable and nutritious protein sources available in the world today,” co-founder of Exo Greg Sewitz told HuffPost Australia.
Crickets contain up to 63 percent protein -- compared to eggs (13 percent protein), beef (26 percent), chicken (27 percent) and fish (22 percent). Studies have also shown crickets are a rich source of iron, B vitamins and fibre.
However, some experts say we don’t have to turn to crickets for extra protein, simply because we are consuming enough protein as it is.
“Everyone has gone protein crazy at the moment and looking at it as some magic macronutrient, rather than one of the macronutrients we need,” accredited practising dietician Caroline Trickey said.
“You don’t have to be eating protein bars and protein shakes -- just eat your regular breakfast, lunch and dinner and you will probably eat more than enough protein you need every day,” Trickey said.
But if sustainability is on the forefront of your mind, choosing to eat crickets is a worthwhile option.
From a sustainability standpoint, the production of one kilogram of crickets require as little as 1.7kg of feed -- whereas the animal feed needed for one kilogram of common meat and poultry is significantly higher:
- Chicken requires 2.5kg animal feed
- Pork requires 5kg
- Beef requires 10kg
On top of this, research shows the edible part of a cricket is up to 80 percent (compared with 40 percent for cattle and 55 percent for chicken), meaning that crickets are twice as efficient in converting feed to meat than chicken, four times more efficient than pigs and 12 times more efficient than cattle.
“From an environmental point of view, insects are a very good, sustainable source of food,” Yen told HuffPost Australia.
However, there are potential drawbacks if we eat crickets as a main protein source.
“The possible downside is concentrating on only a small number of insect species to be farmed,” Yen said.
As is the case with beef, chicken, wheat and rice, consuming crickets out of all insects is a very small number compared to the potential number of edible animals and plants that exist.
“There are 2,000 species of insects around the world that have been eaten, and so this domestic cricket is only one species -- instead of placing emphasis one species of insect, we should actually be looking to have several different species to eat,” Yen said.
So it begs the question, are you going to start eating crickets and cricket flour products?
“If you want to eat crickets, go for it,” Trickey said. “They’re a good source of protein and are sustainable. I would just personally choose not to.”
“With the numerous environmental and nutritional benefits, it just makes sense,” Sewitz from Exo said. “We're already seeing a growth in the space even though it's still relatively young and -- with over 80 percent of the world's population already consuming insects -- we want to help make insect protein a normalised part of the Western diet.”
If you’re concerned about the environment but crickets aren’t your thing, Trickey recommends eating more plant-based protein sources.
“I’m all for sustainability -- the need to create crops for live stock affects our whole environment,” Trickey said.
“You can get your protein sources from plant-based food and then eat a small amount of meat, chicken or fish.”