Adding insects to our diet would benefit both the environment and human health. Eating crickets, for example, can help support the growth of beneficial gut bacteria and reduce inflammation in the body, according to a new study.
Valerie Stull, a recent doctoral graduate of the University of Wisconsin–Madison Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, wanted to explore the health effects of eating insects on the human microbiome.
“About 5 years ago, a friend of mine suggested that I read a report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations on the potential for edible insects to combat malnutrition,” she said.
“From there I was hooked. Edible insects are fascinating because while humans have consumed insects throughout history, and about 2 billion people around the globe regularly consume them now, research on the subject is relatively new.”
To find out more on the topic, Stull conducted a clinical pilot study that looked at how crickets can affect the human gastrointestinal (GI) tract.
The study is published in the journal Scientific Reports.
The benefits of eating insects
When Stull was just 12 years old, she ate her first insect — fried ants on a trip to Central America with her family.
“I remember being so grossed out initially, but when I put the ant in my mouth, I was really surprised because it tasted like food — and it was good!” she said in a statement.
When she found out that people around the world regularly consume insects as a good source of protein, vitamins, minerals and healthy fats, she became interested in both the health and environmental benefits that the tiny creatures could offer.
“There is so much untapped potential when it comes to utilizing edible insects. They are abundant, and when farmed, can generate a high-quality protein with a substantially lower environmental impact than traditional livestock,” said Stull.
“They need less feed, land, and water to grow — and they generate fewer greenhouse gases. Additionally, insect agriculture can also potentially support livelihoods (through income generation) and human health (by increasing access to nutritious insect foods). Adding insects to the diet is a good idea for all of these reasons.”
To test the health benefits of insects, Stull turned her focus to crickets.
Like other insects, crickets contain fibers, such as chitin, that are different from the dietary fibers found in fruits and vegetables.
Fiber is important because it serves as a microbial food source, and some types of fiber promote the growth of beneficial bacteria known as probiotics.
“Scientists are beginning to understand how the bacteria and other microbes that live in our GI tract influence our health. They help with digestion and may also play a role in obesity, type two diabetes, colon cancer, the ability of the body to fight illness, and more,” said Stull.
“Thus, it is important to cultivate healthy, diverse microbial communities in the gut. One of the best ways to do this is to eat a high fiber diet.”
Stull explained that most nutritional data on edible insects focuses on protein and other nutrients, but insects also contain fiber that isn’t found in animal products, such as meat or eggs.
“The fiber we eat can shape microbial growth in our gut and impact health. Not surprisingly, high fiber intake has been associated with a reduced risk of several diseases (e.g., breast cancer, diverticular disease, coronary heart disease, and metabolic syndrome),” she said.
For these reasons, Stull and her colleagues wanted to investigate if eating crickets could have health benefits beyond nutritional content — specifically, how they might impact gut microbiota.
The researchers recruited 20 healthy men and women ages 18-48 for a six-week-long study.
For the first two weeks, participants ate either a control breakfast or a breakfast containing 25 grams of powdered cricket meal that was made into muffins or shakes.
Then, for the second two weeks, each participant ate a normal diet for a “washout period.”
In the last part of the study, those who started on the cricket diet now consumed a control breakfast, while those who started on the control diet now consumed a cricket breakfast for two weeks.
During the study, participants served as their own control, and the researchers were kept from knowing which diet the participants were given at any time.
Additionally, at each point in the study, the researchers collected blood samples, stool samples and answers to gastrointestinal questionnaires.
Blood samples were tested for blood glucose and enzymes associated with liver function, as well as for levels of a protein associated with inflammation.
The stool samples were tested for the byproducts of microbial metabolism in the human gut, inflammatory chemicals associated with the gastrointestinal tract, and the overall makeup of the microbial communities present in the stools.
The researchers found no evidence to changes in overall microbial composition or gut inflammation, and the participants reported no significant gastrointestinal changes or side effects.
However, the researchers did find an increase in a metabolic enzyme associated with gut health, and a decrease in TNF-alpha, an inflammatory protein in the blood that has been linked to depression and cancer.
They also found an increase in the abundance of beneficial bacteria, including Bifidobacterium animalis, a strain that has been linked to improved GI function and other measures of health in studies of a commercially available strain called BB-12.
However, the researchers said that additional, larger studies will need to be done in order to determine what components of crickets contribute to improved gut health.
“This very small study shows that this is something worth looking at in the future when promoting insects as a sustainable food source,” Stull said in a statement.
Food of the future?
Even though cultures around the world have been eating insects throughout human history, Stull explained that it might take some convincing for the West.
“Americans and Europeans are quite squeamish about eating insects. It isn’t part of our traditional food culture … yet(!). But over time, food culture can change, and I do think that as more people begin to care about the sustainability of their food, insects may become a larger part of the Western diet,” she said.
“Education about sustainability is key. Equally important are efforts by chefs and food innovators to make edible insects delicious and appetizing to Western palates.”
Insects can be adapted to a variety of meals, and through experimenting, Stull has found some personal favorites.
“Personally, I enjoy baking with cricket powder, adding cricket powder to smoothies, and toasting mealworms for a snack. While I was living in Zambia, I liked some of the local delicacies — termites and flying ants were quite tasty,” she said.
Natalie Colarossi is a recent graduate from Ohio University with a B.A. in Journalism from the E.W. Scripps School. She is from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She has covered a number of topics including art, culture, politics, music, and travel. Her greatest passion and priority is to travel, and she hopes to experience as many places and cultures as possible.