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Should people eat insects instead of meat? Experts explain the benefits of bugs

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(NEW YORK) — Consuming insects is common in many global cuisines — from roasted grasshoppers in Mexico to deep-fried mealworms in Thailand. Many people have found room for bugs on the dinner plate but will Americans ever see eating insects as more than a daring novelty?

Experts say bugs are a climate-friendly and nutrient-rich alternative to typical animal proteins, but when it comes to Western cultures, the “ick” factor is standing in the way of an insect-inclusive diet.

“Because of our heavy European cultural influence, most Americans shun the idea of eating insects,” David Shetlar, Ph.D., an entomology professor at The Ohio State University, told ABC News.

Native Americans have incorporated bugs into their diets as a reflection of the season, according to Shetlar, such as eating cicadas during their periodical outbreaks and foraging for grasshoppers in late summer.

Nutritionally, cicadas contain 21.4 grams of crude protein per 100 grams, according to a 2023 study “Edible and Medicinal Progress of Cryptotympana atrata (Fabricius) in China.”

The study found that cicadas have approximately 1.6% more protein than that found in pork and eggs. In contrast, the fat content of cicadas — 2.6 grams per 100 grams — is much less than that of pork and beef.

There are 2,100 species of insects that are consumed as food in over 110 countries, according to the National Institute of Health (NIH).

“There are several moves, worldwide, to cultivate insects as food,” Shetlar said, noting that Asian as well as African and Polynesian cultures have regularly included insects in their diets.

When concluding which animals are “gross” or “good” to eat, researchers say it comes down to conditioning and familiarity, which can be difficult to reverse.

Shetlar contended that farmed shrimp, crustaceans which are in the same phylum or taxonomy as insects, are an example of this dietary perspective.

The U.S. Food & Drug Administration reports that if you’re allergic to shellfish, eating insects such as cicadas might produce a similar allergic reaction because of the relation.

“We think that people are reluctant to eat insects in Western societies because it is not the norm to do so, and people are disgusted by the idea,” Dr. Maxine Sharps, a social and health psychologist at De Montfort University, told ABC News.

“If insects became more prevalent in the food system, and people became more familiar with them, they may be more willing to try them and include them in their diets,” Sharps said.

In a recent study, Sharps and fellow researchers surveyed 603 adults in the U.K. and found that only 13% of respondents said they would be willing to regularly consume insects, compared to 47% who answered they would not be willing, and 40% who responded “maybe” or “unsure” to the question.

Crickets and mealworms are the most common types of insects eaten around the world, according to Sharps who maintains they are not only safe to consume but a source of protein and nutrients.

Reflective of its namesake, mealworms are gaining attention as a source of protein for food purposes worldwide, according to the NIH.

Fresh yellow mealworm larvae contain about 15% fat and 20% protein while freeze-dried yellow mealworm larvae contain around 33% fat and 51% crude protein, according to the NIH.

When looking at the intersection of typical Western diets and the environment, experts say the role animal agriculture plays in global warming is cause for change.

“Traditional farming systems put a huge amount of pressure on the environment whereas farming insects uses less land and water, and greenhouse gas emissions are lower than the farming of animals,” Sharps said.

Raising farm animals — cows, pigs and chickens — for human consumption accounts for 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

To put that in perspective, animal agriculture’s environmental footprint is the second-highest source of emissions, behind electricity and heat production, and is higher than all transportation-related emissions, according to the UN.

The agency notes that animal agriculture is one of the leading causes of deforestation, biodiversity loss and water pollution.

Dr. Lauren McGale, a researcher from Edge Hill University behind the recent study with Dr. Sharps, told ABC News eating insects, going plant-based or trying lab-grown meat alternatives “could contribute to a more sustainable food system overall.”

“This is not likely to be a silver bullet for sustainability, we know people are not particularly willing to consume insects,” McGale acknowledged, adding, “However, it could still be a potential option for those that are willing.”

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