Are There Bugs in Our Food, Medicine, and Make-Up?
For a while now, we’ve been hearing rumblings of insects being a more economical, plentiful, and easily accessible alternative source of protein. Yes, there is an ick factor for many unaccustomed to the practice of humans eating bugs as food, a.k.a. entomophagy. However, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), insects are already part of the diet for two billion people, such as in Southeast Asia, Africa, and among some tribes in India.
In some places in Mexico, grasshopper tacos are served, and in Thailand, insects are popular in many dishes. Mod daeng, or weaver ants and their eggs, are rich in sugars, proteins, and vitamins. They are sprinkled into omelets and a milk-based dessert called kati kai mod daeng. Popular in Columbia, hormigas culonas are world famous fat-bottomed ants that are eaten fried as a snack. Jumiles, or Mexican stinkbugs, are a snack as much as they are an analgesic. They often end up as taco and salsa filling.
Still, how do the uninitiated address the “ick” factor? Do you start by incorporating them into your diet as flour? Or do you compare them to shrimp, which too looks kind of strange (if you ask me) and imagine insects are their distant relatives? Do you hide them in a wrap and don’t look them in the eye? In an article for The Conversation, Sarah Beynon notes that by 2050, we will need “70% more food, 120% more water and 42% more crop land.” Perhaps necessity will leave the world with no choice but to embrace insects as food. Given the damage done to the environment by our current food choices, edible insects and insect protein can be a nutritious alternative.
According to the article “Insects for Food and Feed” from the FAO, edible insects contain high-quality protein, vitamins, and amino acids fit for human consumption. “Edible insects (60% protein) are higher in protein content compared to chicken (43%) or beef (54%). On average, only fish (81%) surpass insects in protein content,” says Martin Gomez Thomsen on the Crickster website. In 2019 in Kerio Valley, Kenya, stunted growth, severe malnutrition, and high mortality rates characterized life for 30% of children below age five. While 2020 brought bad news globally, in Kerio Valley, a six-month diet of porridge enriched with edible insects brought the death count down to almost zero, reports Fred Kibor in The Standard.
Combine insect protein’s nutritional value with growing droughts, rising concerns that cattle belch enormous amounts of greenhouse gases, and widespread food crises, and suddenly, it seems like the answer to our prayers. Embracing insect protein means saying “yes” to an affordable, sustainable opportunity to assuage the ecological impact of other proteins such as cattle.
Our jaws drop when we learn that 528 gallons of water are needed to produce a single burger. On the World Economic Forum website, Sean Fleming also reports that water from “an Olympic-size swimming pool would only amount to 1,250 burgers.” Is this the most efficient use of one of our most precious resources? Further, if you think about the space and cost associated with breeding insects versus other sources of protein, insects win hands down: according to the aforementioned article from the FAO, “crickets need six times less feed than cattle, four times less than sheep, and twice less than…broiler chickens to produce the same amount of protein.”
Whether for human consumption or in animal and bird feed as a protein source, the industry is ramping up its use of insects as an ingredient. But a new trend, insects are not. Remember that 2012 Starbucks® controversy? The one where we were aghast to find that the pink color in our Strawberry and Creme Frappuccino® was courtesy of a bug? Carmine, a.k.a. cochineal, to be precise? It was a Starbucks barista who’d read the strawberry flavoring’s label and alerted the world that this commonly used FDA-approved colorant was being used as an ingredient. Turns out it was not just in Frappuccinos but also in Starbucks birthday cake pops, mini donuts with pink icing, and red velvet whoopee pies. And Starbucks wasn’t alone in the practice. To date, carmine is being used in the pharmaceutical, food, and cosmetics industries.
In an article for Forbes, Dennis Hollier reports that another product, shellac, is made from the excretion (or, ahem, secretions, if you prefer) of the lac beetle. Ever wonder how your malted milk balls and jelly beans got that shiny, glazed, happy look? Now you know. Shellac is confectioner’s glaze. Also sprayed on oranges, lemons, and apples, it extends a fruit’s shelf life and “replace[s] the wax washed off during cleaning,” according to Hollier.
Pharmaceutical grade shellac is commonly used for the coating that makes those bitter pills you pop more palatable. Think about how capsules, especially time-release capsules, work. “By managing the thickness of the shellac, the drug maker can have the pill dissolve in the place and time that works best” rather than have medicines dissolve too quickly in stomach acids, writes Hollier. The shellac makes your medicine a not-so-bitter pill to swallow.
From medicines to your favorite candies, there is certainly more on ingredient lists than the average consumer can easily decipher, making services such as IFANCA® halal certification all the more critical.
The schools of Islamic jurisprudence, except for the Maliki, prohibit the consumption of insects, says Sheikh Rachid Belbachir. Even among the Maliki, insects are permissible only so long as their consumption causes no harm, he explains. The exception is locusts, which are permissible among all schools of Islamic jurisprudence.
It was narrated from ‘Abdullah bin ‘Umar that the Messenger of Allah (Peace Be Upon Him [PBUH]) said: “Two kinds of dead meat have been permitted to us: fish and locusts.”—Sunan Ibn Majah, Volume 4, Book 28, Hadith 3218.
Further, companions of the Prophet (PBUH) were known to eat locusts.
Narrated Ibn Abi `Aufa: We participated with the Prophet (PBUH) in six or seven Ghazawat, and we used to eat locusts with him.—Sahih al-Bukhari, Volume 7, Book 67, Hadith 403.
Locusts are about 70% protein by weight, low-carb, fat-free, and a source of minerals such as iron, zinc, folic acid, omega-3s, omega-6s, and vitamins. Where locusts have swarmed since ancient times, they’ve also found themselves on the menu, including in cities like Dubai and Jerusalem.
Naazish YarKhan, CEO of WritersStudio.us, provides editorial guidance to students in the US and internationally on their college application essays. Her writing has been featured in the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Magazine, NPR, and Public Radio International and has been translated into Arabic, Hebrew, French, Urdu, and Tagalog. She is a former managing editor of Halal Consumer Magazine. Her newest short story will be in the New Moons anthology this fall.