Study: Our early ancestors ate insects and we can, too
Until now, it was thought that today's mammals would have a tough time digesting insect exoskeletons because they lacked a certain enzyme, but a new study from scientists at Rutgers University and Kent State University has proven that isn't true, reports Ingredients Network.
The study, published in Molecular Biology and Evolution, found that nearly all living primates possess working versions of the gene necessary to produce the stomach enzyme required to break down insect exoskeletons. The researchers examined 34 primate genomes looking for the gene known as CHIA, which is capable of breaking down chitin, the hard outer covering of insects. Most living primates have only one copy of the CHIA gene, but early primates had a minimum of three working copies, the researchers found, so they concluded that insects were an important food source for early humans.
"As some primates evolved to be larger and more active during the day than at night, their diets shifted a bit to other foods like fruits and leaves,” said Mareike Janiak, a doctoral candidate at Rutgers and lead author of the study. "Insects became less important and their digestive enzymes changed, but most living primates still have at least one working CHIA gene.”
Even if modern consumers possess enough of the right genes and stomach enzymes to successfully digest insect exoskeletons, it's unlikely that most U.S. consumers are ready to start eating them regularly. The "ick" factor is simply too great, although there are plenty of cultures in the world where insect consumption is routine and, in fact, an important protein source. American consumers have plenty of other protein options at their disposal, both animal and plant-based, and our cultural background makes it difficult to market insects here.
However, some companies have forged ahead in this area and are including cricket flour as a food ingredient. Chirps, Bitty Foods and Exo Protein are using it in various products, and the trend seems to be continuing. MOM's Organic Market started carrying some products last year containing insects, or as the Maryland family-owned grocery company called it, "sustainable protein."
Global Market Insights estimates that the global edible insects market will exceed $522 million by 2023, with beetles, grasshoppers, locusts and crickets, in that order, making up the greatest potential growth areas.
The lead scientist of the Rutgers/Kent State study pointed out that, even without the needed enzyme, an exoskeleton is much easier to chew and digest if the insect is cooked. Nevertheless, squeamish customers are not likely to change their minds. A Dutch study last year found that most Western consumers weren't keen on eating whole, freeze-dried, fried or processed insects, and they also assumed that meat from cattle who had eaten insects could be tougher to prepare, not as safe and not as flavorful.
Many studies have confirmed that insects pack a nutritional punch, are available in great numbers, and don't need many resources to produce. They may be the best food source to accommodate the growing world's population, which is expected to add 2 billion more people over the next 30 years.
Despite their nutritional advantages, insects have a tough road to becoming a culturally acceptable dining specialty, at least in this country. It's one thing to grind crickets up into flour and quite another to present sauteed beetles or cockroaches at the table, even if they contain protein, vitamins and minerals and have a smaller environmental footprint than beef or chicken. Scientists may assure U.S. consumers that they are physically able to digest insect exoskeletons, but it's unlikely most of them are psychologically or emotionally prepared to test out that conclusion anytime soon.
- Ingredients Network Rutgers study: insects are digestible by humans