Valerie Stull was 12 when she ate her first insect.
“I was on a trip with my parents in Central America and we were served fried ants,” she says. “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!”
Today, Stull, a recent doctoral graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, is the lead author of a new pilot clinical trial published in the journal Scientific Reports that looks at what eating crickets does to the human microbiome.
It shows that consuming crickets can help support the growth of beneficial gut bacteria and that eating crickets is not only safe at high doses but may also reduce inflammation in the body.
“There is a lot of interest right now in edible insects,” Stull says. “It’s gaining traction in Europe and in the U.S. as a sustainable, environmentally friendly protein source compared to traditional livestock.”
More than 2 billion people around the world regularly consume insects, which are also a good source of protein, vitamins, minerals and healthy fats. The research team was interested in documenting for the first time via clinical trial the health effects of eating them.
Crickets, like other insects, contain fibers, such as chitin, that are different from the dietary fiber found in foods like fruits and vegetables. Fiber serves as a microbial food source and some fiber types promote the growth of beneficial bacteria, also known as probiotics. The small trial probed whether insect fibers might influence the bacteria found in the gastrointestinal tract.
Stull is co-founder of an award-winning startup and research collaboration called MIGHTi, the Mission to Improve Global Health Through Insects. In the future, MIGHTi hopes to provide home-use insect-farming kits to communities that already consume insects, including many in southern Africa. Insects require far less water to farm than traditional livestock and can help improve food security in impoverished communities while providing economic opportunities to women.
“Most of the insects consumed around the world are wild-harvested where they are and when they are available,” says Stull, who has eaten insects — including caterpillars, cicadas, grasshoppers and beetle larvae — all over the world. “People love flying termites in Zambia, which come out only once or twice a year and are really good; they taste like popcorn and are a crunchy, oily snack.”
She hopes to promote insects as a more mainstream food in the United States, and though the industry is currently small, the rise of edible insect producers and companies using insects in their food products may make this possible.
“Food is very tied to culture, and 20 or 30 years ago, no one in the U.S. was eating sushi because we thought it was disgusting, but now you can get it at a gas station in Nebraska,” she says.
The study was funded by a multistate Hatch project (W3122: Beneficial and Adverse Effects of Natural Chemicals on Human Heath and Food Safety), the Karen Morris-Fine New Investigator Success Fund, the Climate Quest competition, and the Clinical and Translational Science Award program of the NIH National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (UL1TR000427). Entomo Farms donated a portion of the cricket powder used in the study.
Story Source: University of Wisconsin-Madison.