Food Bugs

Image: Sean from Cleanleap enjoying tarantulas in Cambodia. 

Fear factor - the TV show a number of us watched through parted fingers - almost always featured bug eating (entomophagy). The creators of the show had a knack for choosing the most succulent, squiggly, disgusting looking grubs - a la Lion King. Now scientists are saying insects could be the answer to the world’s food sustainability challenges. Should their thinking catch on; you may just find yourself dining like Simba.

Thinking outside of the box

Insects have always been a part of the diet of many cultures around the world. Kenya is no exception. The introduction of a ‘modern diet’, however, has seen insects decline in popularity over the decades. With many considering them a ‘poor man’s food’.

Prof Monica Ayieko, a lecturer at Jaramogi Oginga Odinga University of Science and Technology (JOOUST) - Department of Food Security and Biodiversity - in Bondo, Siaya county, saw the folly in this thinking after she was introduced to termites and lake flies as food by her mother-in-law over a decade ago.

Around 2005 she embarked upon researching the nutritive value of these and other edible insects found in Kenya’s lake region. She soon focused on crickets because, she says, they are easy to trap and available all year round.

Cricket cookies anyone?

In 2014 she was on TV screens across the country demonstrating how she and her students make cricket cookies. Frying and grinding up the crickets into a powder, which was added to amaranth flour. The resulting mixture was then used to fortify a regular wheat flour-based batter. Some cookies used whole crickets; as one would raisins…yum!

Small solutions to big problems

But hers was not to bring on the shock factor, or the fear factor for that matter. Insects and other bugs could potentially solve a lot of Kenya’s and indeed the world’s food security and malnutrition challenges.

As recently as 2014, the USAID reported that about 1.5 million of Kenyans were in need of food assistance. UNICEF statistics show that over 200,000 children suffer from moderate acute malnutrition.

Prof Ayieko’s research found crickets to be rich in zinc, iron, copper and protein. And according to the National Geographic, mealworms provide as much protein, vitamins and minerals as fish and meat; while small grasshoppers contain just as much protein as lean ground beef, with less fat per gram.

Easy to rear

By 2012 Prof Ayieko was already helping farmers in Kenya’s Western and Nyanza regions to supplement their income through cricket farming. All a farmer needed to get started was KES 1,000 (10 USD). The return on investment was almost instant because crickets are prolific breeders. As one farmer, Japheth Alula told Business Daily Africa:

“Crickets are like chicken and they reproduce so fast. That means farmers get returns after a week.”

Through the University she was able to organize over 500 farmers into groups of 50. Each group would rear crickets, harvest and dry them for export and use the surplus to make cricket-based pastries and even sausages for sale.

Swarming with big money

The field of research into insects for food has been gaining steady attention over the years. Conventional protein sources are proving to be environmentally unsustainable. Factory farming models are raising moral issues. And the WHO recently released a report about the health risks involved with the over consumption of meat. Could insects be the way out of the conundrum?

Prof Ayieko’s research has caught the attention of the Canadian, Dutch, German, Danish and Australian governments as well as the World Bank. Who are now working with, JOOUST, International Centre for Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE), among others to establish a multi-million dollar African Centre of excellence into the research and sustainable use of insects as food.

Change your mind, change the world

Dr. Sunday Ekesi, a principal scientist at the ICIPE told the Daily Nation “Cultural perceptions are still a hindrance but we are convincing local communities that the insects can be processed well. The consumers will enjoy the nutritional benefits without them eating the insects as a whole.”

But Kenya is not the only place where people are trying to make insects more palatable and thus more mainstream. Exo, a company in the US, has developed (and is selling) a line of protein bars made with ground-up cricket flour. Restaurants are experimenting with adding insects to their menus. And chefs are taking up making gourmet insect-based dishes as a culinary challenge.

Many still think that insects becoming a full-time replacement for animal-based protein is a far-fetched idea. Judging from the interest and inventiveness in the area; that could definitely change. Someday, maybe the phrase will be … “Mmm tastes like crickets!”