Would You Eat Insects? Entomophagy Explored

Man has been eating insects for a long time

Fried dragonflies for sale at Chinese market. Katie Garrod/Getty Images

A readily harvestable and highly nutritious food source inhabits the air above us, the ground below us and every tree and bush in sight: insects. Granted, eating insects may seem pretty gross and even dangerous. However, entomophagy, or the practice of ingesting insects by humans, has a long history. Furthermore, fewer than 0.2 percent of insects are harmful to man, animals or plants.

Brief History of Entomophagy

Insectivory—another name for entomophagy—is evidenced in the fossil record.

By analyzing microwear patterns, scientists discovered that an early form of man, who lived more than a million years ago in what is now South Africa, used bone tools to dig out termites from mounds.

Various hypotheses have been floated that explain the significance of insectivory in prehistory including the following:

  • Entomophagy was less risky than hunting or scavenging
  • It made big contributions to nutritional needs
  • It was seasonal and helped supplement key nutrients not available in food staples
  • It required basic technology like a container or tool with which to probe and extract
  • It yielded food sources that could be carried and exchanged
  • It encouraged division of labor between with sexes, with women mostly responsible for gathering insects.

With respect to modern man, entomophagy has been recorded among 300 ethnic groups in 113 countries around the world. The practice of insectivory is most prevalent among traditional cultures of Asia and Africa as well as Central and South America.

In some of these societies, up to 10 percent of a person’s nutritional requirements can be derived from insect sources.

In 1885, insectivory was prominently introduced to Western audiences with the publication of a book titled Why Not Eat Insects? by English entomologist Vincent M. Holt. More recently, between 1988 and 2000, Gene DeFoliart, a now-deceased entomologist and professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, published a well-received periodical titled The Food Insects Newsletter.

Furthermore, the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations has been holding conferences in support of entomophagy as an answer to world hunger and published a book titled Edible Insects: Future Prospects for Food and Feed Security, which has been translated into several languages and downloaded more than seven million times.

According to the authors of this book:

“Edible insects have always been a part of human diets, but in some societies there is a degree of distaste for their consumption. Although the majority of edible insects are gathered from forest habitats, innovation in mass-rearing systems has begun in many countries. Insects offer a significant opportunity to merge traditional knowledge and modern science in both developed and developing countries.”

Although insects or insect-based products have yet to make the menu at the vast majority of dining establishments in the West, there has been increased interest in insectivory. For example, in the United States, cricket-based products, such as cricket-based flour, cookies and protein bars, are in development.

In Europe, the availability of insects and insect-derived foodstuffs is even more widespread. For instance, locust, mealworms, and crickets are available at certain markets. In the Netherlands, more than 500 supermarkets sell burgers and nuggets containing mealworm flour.

Which Insects Are Edible?

Only a very small fraction of the estimated 30 million insect species are edible. Specifically, about 2000 of these insects are edible. Most of these insects fall into five orders:

  • Coleoptera (i.e., beetles)
  • Hymenoptera (i.e., wasps, bees and ants)
  • Isoptera (i.e., termites)
  • Lepidoptera (i.e., moths and butterflies)
  • Orthoptera (i.e., locusts and crickets)

According to the United Nations, here are estimates of entomophagy by insect type:

  • 31 percent of insects consumed by people are beetles
  • 18 percent are caterpillars
  • 14 percent are wasps, bees and ants
  • 13 percent are crickets, locusts and grasshoppers
  • 10 percent are cicadas and pentatomid (stink) bugs.
  • 3 percent are termites
  • 3 percent are dragonflies
  • 2 percent are flies
  • 5 percent are other types

How Nutritious Are Insects?

For the most part, insects are pretty nutritious. The true nutritional value of any individual bug depends on various things, including species, gender, environment (temperate vs. tropical climates), developmental stage and method used to analyze protein content.

Here are some general points concerning the nutritional value of insects:

  • Protein is the largest single nutritional component present in insects
  • In terms of dry weight, the protein count of insects ranges between 7 percent and 91 percent. Many species are around 60 percent protein
  • Not all the protein in insects is digestible. Some protein is caught in chitin, which is the indigestible part of an insect’s exoskeleton
  • The protein content of many insect species is comparable with that of meat
  • The fat content of proteins ranges from 13 percent in locusts, crickets, and grasshoppers to 33 percent in beetles and grubs
  • Larvae have higher fat content
  • Most insects contain about as much unsaturated fats as do poultry and fish; however, insects are higher in polyunsaturated fats than either poultry or fish
  • Because insects don’t possess calcified shells like seafood, they contain little calcium. Some insects like palm weevils, crickets and caterpillars are rich in iron and zinc

How Are Insects Eaten?

The most obvious way that insects are consumed is in their whole form. However, bugs can make their way into our bodies in other ways, too. For example, in Mexico, tortillas are made with yellow mealworm powder, which contains 58 percent protein and is rich in essential amino acids like tyrosine, tryptophan and phenylalanine. On a related note, insects can be ground into livestock feed and thus be introduced into our diets more circuitously.

Are Insects Safe to Eat?

People have been eating insects for eons without getting sick, so in their unadulterated and natural form, edible insects are likely safe. However, there are certain concerns about the safety of insect consumption that require more research.

First, in an age of organic pesticides, antibiotics and heavy metals, a variety of chemical contaminants could make their way into insects.

Second, certain insects could pick up bacteria that make people sick. For example, when harvested from the ground, insects could pick up either E. coli or spore-forming bacteria that cause illnesses like tetanus, botulism and anthrax. Please note that this second point is probably reason enough for anybody who is interested in harvesting insects from the surrounding environment, but has limited experience or knowledge, to refrain from this practice and instead purchase insect products from reputable, safe and hygienic distributors. (If interested in experimenting, Amazon sells seasoned worms, crickets and grasshoppers.)

Third, it remains to be researched whether processing of insects results in the formation of toxic substances or whether insects become spoiled after harvest.

Fourth, although suspected, it remains to be seen whether people who have allergies to dust mites and crustaceans would show cross-reactivity to insect species. In other words, if you’re allergic to dust mites or shellfish, you may want to refrain from eating bugs.

Why Should People Eat Insects?

There are several compelling arguments that bolster the cause for entomophagy among people.

Readily available food source. The demand for protein derived from animal sources is expected to rise by 76 percent by the year 2050. This increase in demand will be disproportionately felt among citizens of developing nations; people who could benefit from insect consumption. After all, it’s a lot easier to harvest crickets than it is to raise cattle.

Global warming. Currently, livestock are responsible for 14 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, which contribute to global warming. Harvesting or farming insects puts a much lower demand on the environment.

In a 2016 article titled Edible Insects Are the Future?, Arnold van Huis writes:

“Insects are an interesting alternative [to meat] considering the low emission of greenhouse gases, the small land area needed to produce 1 kg protein, their efficient feed conversion efficiencies, and their ability to convert organic side streams in high value protein products.”

Employment opportunities. In developing nations, the harvesting of insects could improve the livelihoods of those associated with the trade—predominantly women from rural areas. To put the economic windfall that increased insect harvesting could potentially bring to impoverished communities in perspective, consider that the mopane caterpillar, which is found in Southern Africa, brings in about $85 million a year. Moreover, in parts of Cameroon and the Congo Basin, the insect trade can account for 20 percent of all economic activity.

Would Americans Eat Insects?

Lots of people are pretty grossed out by insects and are more likely to associate them with a garbage in a dumpster or decomposing road kill than with a tasty snack. From a psychological perspective, we acquire this aversion between 2 and 5 years of age, and it has more to do with the idea of eating insects than the sensory properties of this food source.

Despite biases that many people hold towards the idea of insects as food, research shows that a surprisingly high number of Americans would consider eating some sort of insect product. Specifically, among Americans who don’t regularly consume insects, 72 percent said they would consider trying insects or insect products.

Other research shows that men are more likely than women to express interest in eating insects as a meat substitute. Furthermore, experience and familiarity with insects as a food source also influences a person’s willingness to try insects.

Parting Thoughts

It’s encouraging that entomophagy is gaining popularity in the Western world. Insects are a highly nutritious and harvesting of insects is much more easily sustainable than raising cattle and other livestock.

Entomophagy would probably most benefit the developing nations where countless people don’t have enough food to eat. Unfortunately, thanks to urbanization, biases against insectivory are becoming common in developing nations. Many urbanized people living these countries have come to view the traditional consumption of insects as primitive. Alternatively, insects are stigmatized as a food eaten by people who are starving and have no other foods to eat. These biases may deter the willingness of more people living in developing nations to engage in entomophagy more extensively.


McGrew WC. The ‘Other Faunivory’ Revisited: Insectivory in Human and Non-Human Primates and the Evolution of Human Diet. Journal of Human Evolution. 71:4-11.

van Huis A. Edible Insects Are the Future. Proceedings of the Nutrition Society. 2016;75:294-305.

Van Huis A et al. Edible Insects: Future Prospects for Food and Feed Security. Rome: FAO; 2013.

Yen AL. Entomophagy and Insect Conservation: Some Thoughts for Digestion. Journal of Insect Conservation. 2009;13:667-670.

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