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Insects? A food with a great commercial potential

With over 1.400 species normally eaten all over the world, insects are very interesting from the nutritional viewpoint

Even if the idea of eating insects could appear very strange, or even disgusting, they are partaken all over the world. In 36 African countries, 527 different species of insects are normally eaten and the same takes place in 29 Asian countries and in 23 American countries.

Insects are sources of proteins, vitamins and mineral salts. Among the hundreds of species used for the human nutrition, the most common insects belong to four main groups: beetles; ants, bees and wasps; grasshoppers and crickets; moths and butterflies. Some insects can be very nourishing, having a protein content equal to the meat or the fish. In the dried form they contain a double quantity of proteins in respect to raw meat or fish, even if usually they do not exceed the protein content of dried or grilled meat or fish. Moreover, some insects, in particular in their larval form, have a very high lipid, vitamin and mineral salts content.

Most of the edible insects come from natural forests; all the same, besides they represent the wider biodiversity in the forest environment, they are the less studied. “It is astonishing how little we know about the life cycles, the reproductive dynamics, the commercial potential and the culturing possibilities of most of the forest edible insects”, said Patrick Durst, senior Forest officer of FAO.

“Among the experts of forests there is a very low knowledge about the potentiality of the insect harvesting”, said Durst, “while, on the contrary, the populations that inhabit the forests and depend on insects for nutrition have a deep knowledge of the different insects and their potential from the nutritional point of view”.

In some areas insects are eaten only occasionally, like an emergency food supply, in the absence of any other food. On the contrary, in most of the regions where insects are partaken, they represent a fix diet component and sometimes they are considered real delicacies. In Thailand, for instance, over 200 different species are eaten, and many of these are considered as snacks or delicacies. The insect sellers are a very traditional part of the Bangkok landscape and the same holds for the entire country.

Humans traditionally exploited insects all over the world, in particular for the production of honey, wax, silk and colorings and, in some cultures, for medical purposes.

Where insects are part of the human diet, they are usually captured in nature, mainly in the form of larvae and pupae, which are the stages in which insects are most commonly partaken. The cooking methods are normally very simple and to exploit this resource the intervention on forests is negligible. Some insects, such as silkworms and bees, were domesticated centuries ago. Only recently an interest toward the breeding of other species for alimentation arose. Nowadays, for instance, it is quite common to find farmers in the north of Thailand breeding bamboo warms or crickets for the local market.

Besides their nutritional value, many experts see in edible insects a big marketing potential for the rural populations that capture, breed, process and sell insects. These prospective could be encouraged by promoting the introduction of modern alimentary technologies for the preservation of insects which are sold and eaten alive, dried, smoked, roasted or treated in other ways. Moreover, it is important to pay attention to the hygienic conditions of the products for human diet, with a particular care to the presence of chemical substances, such as insecticides.

According to Durst, “there is the actual possibility to improve the packaging and the marketing of these products, in order to make edible insects more appealing to traditional consumers and to expand the market to new customers, in particular in urban areas”.

Font: FAO

by S. C.
07 december 2009, Food & Fun > Nature