The future of breakfast, lunch, and dinner – and everything in between – may not look like the dishes of today. Instead, to keep a lower environmental footprint in a changing world, we may turn to other foods like grasshoppers, silkworms, and crickets (oh my!)
Insects have been on the menu for some time now, but this new research specifically focused on calculating the antioxidant value of commercially available insects. To do this, they grabbed a handful of marketplace delights, including black scorpions, Thai zebra tarantulas, giant water bugs, African caterpillars, and black ants.
The team from the University of Teramo in Italy then had the task of removing any wings, paws, or stingers from the creatures and grinding them up in a lab-scale mixer. Extracts were obtained from the dried and defatted insects to quantify the level of in vivo antioxidants – molecules in cells that help prevent damage from free radicals.
Published in Frontiers in Nutrition, the study found that grasshoppers, crickets, and silkworms were the star players on the plate, displaying a five-fold higher antioxidant capacity than fresh orange juice. This, however, was for the dried, ground-up versions of the insects – perhaps not quite as appetizing as a glass of OJ to rev you up in the morning. If diluted similarly to orange juice, that percentage becomes 75 percent of the juice's antioxidant capacity but with other benefits, including a smaller carbon footprint than livestock.
The Thai zebra tarantula, black scorpions, and giant water bugs placed lowest on the antioxidant ranking, while silkworm and African caterpillar fat held twice the power of olive oil. The results revealed that the vegetarians have a higher antioxidant capacity.
"However when liposoluble antioxidant capacity was assessed, carnivorous raise their position in the ranking," said Professor Mauro Serafini, lead author of the study, to IFLScience. "These results suggest that vegetarians insects absorb bioactive ingredients form food and they contribute to the antioxidant properties. However, the finding that also in carnivorous we have antioxidant properties, mainly in liposoluble fractions, means that insects and invertebrates are endowed with a still unknown battery of bioactive ingredients both in water and lipo-soluble fractions."
Many insects and invertebrates are known to be good sources of noble proteins, minerals, vitamins, and fatty acids. However, less research has explored the creatures’ role as source of bioactive ingredients.
"At least 2 billion people – a quarter of the world’s population – regularly eat insects, mainly in Asia, south and central America and Africa," said Professor Serafini. "The western countries will need a bit more encouragement In order to start to appreciate insects." Currently, there are more than 7 billion people on Earth, with industrial agriculture noted as a contributor to climate change.
"The environmental benefits of insects rely on their low carbon emission, low water and ecological footprints compared to animal products. Reducing animal products consumption with insects will provide a clear reduction in the ecological impact of diet, while maintaining appropriate intake of protein and essential aminoacids."
It's important to note that the research was done in vitro, so follow-up studies are needed to clarify the antioxidant effects for humans.
"The in vivo efficiency of antioxidant-rich food is highly dependent on bioavailability and the presence of an ongoing oxidative stress," added Serafini. "So as well as identifying other antioxidant compounds in insects, we need tailored intervention studies to clarify their antioxidant effects in humans in order to strength these first findings."
"This work suggest that in the future, we might adapt dietary regimens for insect rearing in order to increase their antioxidant content for animal or human consumption in order to increase human and animal wellbeing for a 'one health approach."