Fact check: Are insects better for you than meat?

There’s a big hype growing around edible insects, and with hype come bold claims. Insects,  low in fat and high in nutrients, are going to revolutionise food on a global scale!

Is it true? BUGSfeed went fact–finding, and found some academics working on exactly this question. They recently published a paper, and we’ve delved into the science (so you don’t have to). Here’s what we found…

True to form, science concludes ‘yes and no’. The first stumbling block is that ‘insects’ is, unfortunately, kind of pointless as a category. There are nearly a million different species of insect. Whereas birds only come in 10,000 varieties, stating that ‘birds are healthy’ would still seem ridiculous. I’m pretty sure my plate of fat–veined roast duck is going to do worse things to me than that slice of turkey.

True to form, science concludes ‘yes and no’

Of course, not all these insects are considered edible. The list stands at about 2,000 species; let’s narrow it down a little more. The academics behind a recent paper that looks at the healthiness, or otherwise, of insects chose six insects: honeybee larvae, crickets, palm weevil larvae, mealworms, silkworms and mopane caterpillars. (These links will take you to the respective BUGSfeed articles including recipes and sources.)

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Higher scores indicate healthier foods. ©Macmillan Publishers Ltd.

The researchers chose these bugs because they’re commercially available in different parts of the world. While crickets are drawing the interest of European and North American consumers in the form of energy bars and crunchy snacks, the larvae of palm weevil beetles are now being farmed commercially in Thailand.

To measure how healthy these bugs were compared to chicken, beef and pork, the researchers thought about it from a public health perspective. They used two different models to measure ‘healthiness’; one written by the world health food programme to improve nutrition in refugee camps, one devised to regulate food advertisements aimed at children.

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High up on the 'healthy' scale: crickets. Photo: BUGS the Film

So while there’s no evidence that ‘insects are healthier’ than meat, using the different models showed that insects are great – in some circumstances. If you need a food source that supplies essential nutrients such as vitamins and minerals, as well as high protein levels, insects seem to be a good call.

But if you’re dealing with a very different public health problem, like the obesity which many western countries are experiencing, it’s less clear. One of the insects tested, the larvae of palm weevil beetles, was much higher in fat than most of the meat products. This should come as no surprise to those who’ve cooked with palm weevil larvae – or read our article about it! As anything which can ‘caramelise’ in its own fat and crisps up like bacon is going to be pretty fatty. For a society experiencing the problem of ‘over-nutrition’, switching from chicken to palm weevil is perhaps not a good move. But crickets? They could be a different story.

Charlotte Payne

Charlotte Payne. Photo: Twitter

So where does this leave us? More confused than before? BUGSfeed spoke to one of the researchers to get their take on the implications of the study. Charlotte Payne, a PhD student at the University of Cambridge in England, put it bluntly: “In terms of saying insects are or aren’t healthy, that’s not valid. We make categories for different reasons, which have nothing to do with health or nutrition.”

There is huge potential, it’s very exciting." —Charlotte Payne

This doesn’t mean the research doesn’t tell us crucial information. Charlotte continues: “There’s huge potential, it’s very exciting. You can see from these results that in both scenarios [under-nutrition and over-nutrition] insects are quite good foods. You can’t say they’re always preferable to meat in terms of nutrition, but they’re certainly no worse.”

The research goes into more depth of course, and if you want to get stuck in the detail, the paper is available here. As often is the case, the key message would seem to be that there is no magic bullet when it comes to food. The ‘yes but also no’ answer of scientific research may seem inconclusive, but really it gives us a good steer on how to treat edible insects: combining a healthy scepticism toward ‘superfood’ claims with enthusiasm for what would seem to be an exciting future for entomophagy.

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