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Could eating insects help meet the nutritional needs of the world’s growing population?

Scientists from King College London, UK and Ningo University, China are reporting in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry that eating insects could be just as nutritious as sirloin steak with certain insect species showing they may be an excellent source of bioavailable iron.

According to a report by the U.N Food and Agriculture Organisation it is estimated that around the world more that 2 million people already consume insects in their diet and globally 1900 insect species are documented as a food source. Latunde-Dada et al. aimed to investigate whether commonly eaten insects such as a crickets, grasshopper, meal and buffalo worms could contribute to a nutritious diet. Previous research has indicated that insects are good source of protein, however for insects to become a staple, they need to contain other essential nutrients including iron, if they are to replace meat. However knowledge of their nutrient composition and the bioavailability of minerals is currently sparse.

The scientists analysed the insects for their mineral content and compared these to sirloin beef. They also analysed the bioavailability of these minerals using a model of human digestion. Minerals analysed for included iron, calcium, copper, magnesium, manganese and zinc. Using inductively coupled plasma optical emission spectrometry, the scientists measured soluble iron. Using a gut model the team measured the amount of iron bioavailability, by analysing the amount of ferritin in Caco-2 cells. The cells absorb nutrients as they are digested, which the scientists’ state provides an indication of mineral uptake in the body. 

Latunde-Dada et al. report that cricket and sirloin beef had higher levels of iron, calcium, and manganese than grasshopper, meal and buffalo worms. Iron solubility however was significantly higher from the insect samples than from the beef. Grasshoppers, crickets and mealworms compared to beef provided more soluble calcium, copper, magnesium, manganese and zinc. The team added whole-wheat flour to the insect and beef protein and report that this however resulted in an “overall decreases in mineral content and iron solubility in the composite mixture”.

In conclusion the scientists state that “commonly consumed insect species could be excellent sources of bioavailable iron and could provide the platform for an alternative strategy for increased mineral intake in the diets of humans.” 

Currently European legislation (Regulation (EU) N° 2015/2283), which was adopted on 25 November 2015 reports that all insect-based products (not only parts of insects or extracts, but also whole insects and their preparations) belong to one of the categories of “Novel Food”. As there is no evidence available of a significant history of use in the European Union before 15 May 1997, the placing on the market of these products requires a prior approval. The latest FSA Chief Scientific Advisor Report discusses insects as a promising candidates as an alternative sustainable food source, noting however that recent research indicates that shrimp allergic individuals are highly likely to react to mealworms in the same way.

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