Why Bugs Are The High-Protein And Fiber-Rich Food You Should Be Eating
Whether you’re consuming them as a protein powder or the intact critters themselves, here’s what you need to know about the vitamins, nutrients, and healthy fats you can get from crickets and other edible insects.
If chewing on a fried tarantula leg or biting into a crispy grasshopper makes you cringe, you could be missing out. More than a quarter of the global population regularly munches on edible insects.
Ants, beetles, and crickets are some of the nearly 2,100 bugs you can eat that not only are good for the planet because they take up fewer resources than meat production but also offer some serious health benefits you should know about.
Many countries and cultures have eaten bugs for generations because they offer protein, healthy fats, and vitamins and minerals.
More people are realizing the culinary and nutritious benefits of edible insects. Crickets especially are starting to grow in popularity in North America.
The quickly growing entomophagy (or bug eating) industry raked in more than $110 million in revenue in 2019 worldwide. Global Market Insights predicts the industry will grow by nearly 50% by 2026 and be a $1.5 billion market.
The most commonly cited reason for eating bugs (in populations that don’t normally consume them) is that they are a more environmentally friendly alternative to eating meat and other types of animal-based products.
“Growing bugs would absolutely create a lesser impact on the environment than the meat industry,” said Goggy Davidowitz, an entomology professor at the University of Arizona and head of edible insect research group HexaFeast.
For example, cattle generate 100 times more greenhouse gas than crickets for the same amount of protein and require more land and water in the process, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
However, many species of bugs provide a nutritional bang for your buck, so you may want to try them out for that reason alone. Crickets in particular are one of the most-consumed insects across the globe. In addition to protein, crickets contain healthy fats, zinc, iron, potassium, and fiber.
Though any diet should contain a variety of nutritional foods, adding even a handful of grasshoppers or a scoop of cricket protein can support sustainable food systems while also filling in some of the gaps of a completely plant-based diet.
The nutritional value of edible crickets varies depending on the species — there are more than 60 species consumed in 49 countries around the world — as well as the stage of development, how they are prepared, what they are fed, and other factors. However, here is what you should know about their nutrients in general. (In this story, we based our cricket nutrition on an adult Acheta domesticus or Gryllus bimaculatus, which are both species many people eat.)
In general, insects can offer as much or more protein than beef, pork, or chicken. There are about 20 grams of protein in 3.5 ounces, or 100 grams, of edible crickets, which is about the same amount of protein in a small steak, pork chop, or chicken breast of the same weight.
If you’re thinking you would never swap a critter for a steak, know that edible insects come in powders, meatlike patties, chips, desserts, and other antennae-free options if the “ick factor” for you is strong.
Some cricket species are also a complete protein, which means they contain all of the nine essential amino acids you need in your diet. While animal-derived foods, like meat, eggs, and milk, and some plants, like quinoa and soy, are complete proteins, most plant-based foods have some amino acids but not others.
“It’s not easy to access complete proteins, so insects could play a good role for somebody who’s looking for an Earth-friendly diet,” said Lisa Kilgour, a certified holistic nutritionist. Not everyone wants to eat a 100% plant-based diet. “Finding an alternative that can give me at least a small source of easy-to-access proteins is a great thing.”
While exercise enthusiasts who make shakes or consume protein powder often turn to whey (a milk protein), soy, or pea proteins, cricket protein powders offer a healthy alternative — they contain just as much protein as other powders but also offer fiber and vitamin B12, which benefit your gut, brain, and nerve cell development and aren’t found as often in other types of powders. (However, check the label as nutrients can vary by brand and type.)
Vitamin B12 is essential to health but only found naturally in animal-based products, like meat, cheese, eggs, and well, bugs. (Vegans typically need to make an extra effort to get vitamin B12 from supplements or fortified foods.)
You can find cricket protein powders online or at some Walmart stores.
Crickets also contain healthy fats. About 58% of the fatty acids in crickets are healthier polyunsaturated fat, although they do contain some saturated fat.
“There's fatty acids as well as omega-3 and omega-6 that you might find in a cricket powder that you wouldn't with whey or a pea powder,” said Keri Gans, a registered dietitian nutritionist and the author of The Small Change Diet.
Gans also noted that while some people experience allergic reactions to soy protein, that is unlikely to happen with cricket protein. However, those with shellfish allergies may have reactions to insects, so you may want to check with your doctor before trying a cricket-based protein powder.
It can be challenging for vegetarians, vegans, or those eating mostly plants to get enough iron. Plants contain the non-heme type, which is not as bioavailable as the heme iron found in animal products.
“An iron deficiency like anemia will cause fatigue,” Gans said. “It’s not uncommon for someone whose diet is mostly plants to be anemic.”
You can get around 10–12 milligrams of non-heme iron per 3.5 ounces of crickets, which is more than the 8 milligrams recommended dietary allowance for iron for adult men and nearly the 18 milligrams RDA for most adult women.
This is more than twice the amount of iron found in a cup of spinach, which is the leafy green known for having a lot of the mineral. Non-heme iron is typically thought to not be easily absorbed for the human body to use. However, a few studies have shown that iron from insects — including crickets — was absorbed at similar rates as iron from beef.
Though fruits and vegetables are a great source of fiber, crickets can contain the same or more per serving. The fiber in crickets comes from their tough exterior, made of a substance called chitin.
It’s an insoluble fiber, meaning it can’t be easily digested, so like the cellulose found in plants, it can support the growth of health-promoting probiotic bacteria, adds bulk, and can help prevent constipation.
A 2020 study found that some species of edible crickets can contain 13 grams of fiber in one cup. Typically, this is more fiber than other high-fiber foods like artichokes, which contains an average of 6.9 grams per cup. (Meat or animal products do not contain fiber.)
“Fiber in the diet is important, first and foremost, to help prevent constipation,” Gans said. Fiber can also help control your blood sugar, lower cholesterol levels, and has other health benefits.
While you may think of a cold glass of milk when you’re looking for more calcium, you may start thinking about crickets instead.
Crickets can have as much as 307 milligrams of calcium per cup, which is about the same as the amount of calcium in 1 cup of whole milk. While it varies by species of cricket (some can have as little as 6 milligrams per cup), calcium is essential for growing and maintaining bones, muscles, and nerves.
If you’re looking to up your potassium intake, a serving of crickets can contain as much potassium as several bananas.
With the crickets, you’d get around 28 to over 1,000 milligrams of potassium per 3.5 ounces (depending on the species), compared with 375 milligrams in one banana.
This mineral helps sustain the fluid levels in your body’s cells and muscles, and getting an adequate intake can help keep your blood pressure under control.
While nuts and seeds are a great source of zinc, you’d have to eat 7 cups of almonds to get the same amount of zinc as 1 cup of crickets.
A cup of almonds can give you about 3 milligrams of zinc while crickets can offer more than 28 milligrams. Zinc helps your cell growth and healing and supports a healthy immune system.
Where do I buy edible insects?
Even if snacking on ants or crickets isn’t appealing to you, you might consider trying cricket protein powders or flours, which are already making their way onto grocery store shelves.
Since there are still not many cricket-based products available in stores, online shopping will be the best way to grab whole crickets or powders.
Just know that bug-based products can be pricey; they can range from $5 to $60, depending on what you’re looking for.
You can find a variety of snacks, protein powders, and whole-roasted crickets at:
- Entomo Farms has powders, snacks, and whole crickets
- Chapul is a company that sells cricket-based flour and protein powder
- Mighty Cricket has cricket-based oatmeal, flour, pancake mix, and chocolate bars
- Human Improvement has protein power in chocolate or vanilla
- Ento Market has a number of edible insect-based snacks, candy, whole-roasted insects, and powders
- Don Bugito offers a variety of chocolate balls, granola bites, protein powders, and seasoned insect snacks
What do edible insects taste like?
While taste is highly personal — what tastes good to me may not appeal to you — many people say edible insects are worth trying and do taste good.
Many bugs, like grasshoppers, are considered “flavor vehicles” because they take on the flavor of whatever you season or cook them with, similar to tofu. Without adding other flavoring, crickets taste nutty or like mushrooms. Others, like black ants, deliver a peppery taste that adds flavor to salads or soups.
With bug cuisine already picking up steam in North America, Davidowitz believes it’s only a matter of time before insects become an accepted part of the typical American diet.
“As long as it tastes good, people will get used to anything,” Davidowitz said. “People’s tastes will change.”
However, Gans thinks it might take a bit more time for people in the US to get used to the idea of eating bugs.
“But if we take away the stigma associated with eating bugs, then we’ve made progress.”