Monday 1 May 2017

Tummy bugs - could eating insects be the key to sustainable nutrition

With global food shortages expected to only get worse, experts believe eating insects may be the ultimate sustainable source of nutrition

Angelina Jolie in Cambodia
Angelina Jolie in Cambodia
Bugs served as an appetiser in Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom
Angelina Jolie eats a tarantula on a recent visit to Cambodia

Tanya Sweeney

In the midst of emotional turmoil and heartbreak, most of us reach for the Haagen-Dazs and wine. Never one to do things by the book, Angelina Jolie is currently bucking the trend with scorpions and tarantulas.

After opening up about how difficult her split from Brad Pitt has been, Angelina has proved that her famous taste for danger is still very much intact on a trip to Cambodia. She and her children happily munched on insects while sampling local delicacies, and the actress seems to know a thing or two about local fare: "I think it's always been a part of the diet, the bugs," she told a BBC reporter this week.

"You start with crickets and a beer and then you kind of move up to tarantulas. It's actually really good, the flavour."

Not everyone is quite as adventurous as the Jolie-Pitt clan, mind. For Ireland, a nation built on the nutritional cornerstones of meat and two veg, entomophagy - the practice of eating insects - belongs squarely in Bushtucker Trials on reality TV. But the likelihood is that it's something we may well need to get used to: it's widely estimated that there will be between nine to 10 billion of us living on earth by the year 2050, meaning that global food shortages will be rife.

Insects, say the experts, will be the key to thwarting these food crises. Bugs could be the ultimate sustainable food source as they have a high rate of reproduction, are fast growing, require little water or food and produce low CO2 emissions.

The National Restaurant Association in the US carries out research into forecasting what's hot and what's not each year and insects are officially on the menu in specialty restaurants in London and New York. London's Grub Kitchen, for instance, boasts quite the bill of fare: think cricket falafels, worm pad Thai curry and an insect tasting-board. According to figures, the global edible insects market is expected to increase up to 40pc by 2023.

A small but certainly growing number of Irish diners are warming to the trend, too.

Wicklow-based insect farmer Tara Elliott is planning to launch the first product in her EddieBug range: a high-protein bar made from cricket flour.

"When I was farming, I made roasted crickets and used the flour in buns and pizza bases. It has a wonderful, nutty flavour," she says.

"At first, I had to put up with a lot of insect jokes, but the science is coming to the forefront now. Crickets are an extremely high source of protein and I'm developing the bar using cricket flour, targeting people who are into health and fitness, and people who are on the go generally."

There's a method to her madness - it ticks plenty of boxes for health conscious types. Cricket flour is a higher source of protein and amino acids than steak, and is paleo-friendly to boot.

In a wider sense, insects - of which there are 800,000 species - are high in calcium and iron, and can be eaten alive, toasted, grilled, freeze-dried or canned for preservation.

While in college, Lara Hanlon decided to incorporate entomophagy into her final year project in design/visual communication at IADT, and thus Entomo - billed as one of Ireland's top 100 start-ups - was born. The company specialises in not just research on entomophagy, but also focuses on raising awareness.

"I had a real interest in food and sustainability, and came across a report looking at the viability of insects as a food," she recalls. "I couldn't imagine eating insects at the time. It felt hugely alien to me. I like to experiment and cook and try new things, but when I first started looking into this, I was like, 'I won't be able to do it'. Still, I imported some insects into Ireland and while they didn't look the most appealing things, I decided to try them."

Pretty soon, Lara was researching the attitudes of her friends towards the prospect of eating insects: "Every single person thought it would be disgusting, ate it and thought, 'oh wow, that's actually fine'.

"I think the way to try it first is in a recipe you're familiar with, like a stir-fry. It takes the shock factor out and makes it easier to accept."

Lara, too, is a fan of cricket flour: "I make these delicious energy bites with fruits, nuts, ground almonds and the flour," she says. "It's a really versatile ingredient and as it doesn't look like an insect, people aren't put off by it."

While no-one can deny the very real 'ick' factor of insect eating for most Irish palates, Lara also makes a good, if slightly disturbing, point.

"On average, we consume insects everyday without realising," Lara writes on the Entomo website. "According to the US Food & Drug Administration, chocolate may have a total of 60 insect particles per 100g, tomato sauce 30 fly eggs per 100g, ground cinnamon may have up to 800 insect fragments and peanut butter often contains about 30 bug bits per 100g. This, of course, is completely natural and causes no harm to human health."

For now, Lara believes that young, adventurous urbanites hold the key to breaking down the cultural hostility towards entomophagy.

"I think the hope is that the industry will tap into foodie types that are conscious about health and nutrition," she explains. "We're beginning to understand that we can't keep eating processed and pre-packaged meals all the time. Globally, the food shortage is a huge crisis and something has to change. Educating a young audience is part of it, so I think getting to very young children and getting them eating insects is a good place to start."

For now, Lara admits that there's a catch-22 situation: while it's hoped insect eating will become a significant global trend, turning them into an 'aspirational' food trend like kale or wheatgrass means it won't be affordable for everyone… yet.

"It has to be cheap for people to access insects on a wide scale, but to get to that point, there has to be demand for it," she explains.

Ireland is seen as progressive in terms of food production and Lara notes there's a very real opportunity for Irish farmers to get in on the trend ahead of other regions.

"We can end up really far behind on this one or be there right at the beginning," she says. "We have one of the healthiest agricultural sectors in the world and it's a matter of understanding the opportunities that are there."

For now, her own journey in experimentation continues and she's more than willing to take a leaf out of Angelina's book.

"I'm okay with grasshoppers and crickets, but I haven't had the chance to try scorpions and tarantulas yet. I might need to be brave and experiment more. If I didn't, I'd be a bit of a fraud."

Irish Independent

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