Insect protein? Edible worms? Why you may want to add these nutritious critters to your diet — if you can get over the 'ick factor'.

Are edible worms and insects the future of protein?
Are edible worms and insects the future of protein? (Getty Images)

While the idea of eating worms and insects may make you feel uneasy, research shows a vast array of benefits when integrating these critters into your meals and snacks. In 2013, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) published a report in support of including edible insects in the Western diet. They’re not only nutritious, but also affordable and highly sustainable. But despite 2 billion people worldwide already consuming over 2,000 species of edible insects daily, can others, particularly in the U.S., begin to accept this promising culinary delight?

How nutritious are edible worms and insects?

Small but mighty, edible worms and insects are a powerhouse of nutrients. Many are a complete source of protein and high in iron, zinc, magnesium, phosphorus, B-vitamins, amino acids, omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids and fiber.

The exoskeletons (outside skeletons) of insects contain chitin, a type of fiber, which may act as a prebiotic and benefit gut health. Along with having antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial properties, chitin has anticancer activity and is used in some anti-cancer medications to help reduce side effects.

How do worms and insects stack up against animal meats?

Despite a wide range of nutrition for edible worms and insects, many seem to have similar if not greater nutritional profiles than animal meats. In a 2021 study comparing the nutrition of 10 varieties of edible insects to the 10 most commonly eaten animal proteins, mealworms, moths and mopane worms ranked the highest in protein, ranging 23-35 grams per 100 grams. These amounts surpassed even those of the highest protein meats, such as chicken breast, turkey breast, beef sirloin and horse meat, which ranged from 19-22 grams per 100 grams. In terms of cholesterol content, insect larvae are on par with pork shoulder and turkey breast.

In a study comparing edible insects to sirloin beef, researchers found that calcium, copper, magnesium, manganese and zinc are more readily absorbed from the grasshoppers, crickets and mealworms than from the beef. For people needing to boost their iron intake, house crickets and mealworms might be able to help. These insects contain higher levels of iron per 100 grams than beef, pork and chicken, and have a similar bioavailability to that of sirloin beef.

Are there environmental benefits to eating worms and insects?

There’s growing concern over the farming practices of traditional livestock, such as cows and chickens. While edible insects may never fully replace factory farming, dietitian Tina Patrice suggests that with enough interest, they could positively influence the environment. By reducing greenhouse gasses and decreasing the demand for resources such as land and water, insect farming offers a promising alternative. Insect farming uses about one-eighth of the land required for beef production, resulting in less waste and carbon footprint, and can thrive in a broader range of environments compared to other livestock.

According to the FAO, edible insects require less feed than conventional livestock. For instance, crickets need six times less feed than cows and only half as much as pigs and broiler chickens to produce equivalent amounts of protein.

There’s also research showing the potential for edible insects to help address food insecurity and malnutrition, especially in rural areas. The Global Forum on Food Security and Nutrition suggests edible insects as a solution to the “rising costs of animal protein, food and feed insecurity, environmental pressures, population growth, and increasing demand for protein among the middle class.”

Are there risks to eating edible worms and insects?

As with any food, there’s always risk involved. Like with animal livestock, insects can harbor disease-causing pathogens, including E. coli and parasites. “This doesn’t mean crickets cannot be eaten safely,” Sarah Alsing, a dietitian and owner of Delightfully Fueled, tells Yahoo Life. “Just that safety guidelines would need to be implemented in cricket farms like there are safety guidelines for livestock.”

According to the FAO, insects are susceptible to chemical contamination from pesticides, heavy metals and antimicrobials. Safety risks can be influenced by factors such as environment, diet, production and processing methods. Jessi Holden, a family culinary dietitian, advises selecting insects from reputable suppliers to minimize the chance of consuming insects harvested from polluted environments.

Patrice recommends cooking insects before eating them, and practicing safe food handling and storage to reduce the risk of bacteria and parasites. The FAO warns also about allergies with chitin and insect proteins, and cautions individuals with allergies to seafood to avoid edible insects.

How can people get over the 'ick factor'?

The aversion to eating insects is deeply rooted in cultural and societal norms, particularly in the U.S. Patrice encourages us to keep an open mind, reminding us that there are many delightful food options available, and we never know which ones we’ll enjoy — worms and insects included. With the right seasonings and blend of ingredients, you might not even recognize what you’re eating. “I’ve had many plant-based meals that I couldn’t tell weren’t actually meat due to how it was seasoned and what other ingredients were paired with it,” says Alsing.

Exploring flavors you enjoy is key. Edible insects come in a variety of flavors, from honey mustard to sriracha to coconut bark. Experts recommend mixing insects into tacos or chili, or using dried crickets or grasshoppers to top salads and rice bowls.

“If you aren’t ready to just eat a worm and cricket in their full forms, then starting with a cricket powder or flour might be the best way to give it a try, says Alsing. “Use the powder as you would a protein powder in baking,” she says. Experiment by adding insect-based protein powder to smoothies, pancakes or energy bites.

Holden cites the importance of education in getting over one's squeamishness. By debunking myths and misconceptions and gaining an understanding of the advantages of consuming insects, people might change their perceptions.

Final takeaway

It’s important to acknowledge that many societies consider edible insects just another ingredient, and regularly consume these foods to stay alive and healthy. While you don’t have to try edible worms and insects, experts agree that including them in your diet could offer many health benefits — and is good for the environment too.