When you think of superfoods, what comes to mind? Maybe blueberries or kale? Perhaps goji berries, turmeric or even chocolate?
How about grasshoppers and silkworms?
Get ready to start putting crickets in your morning smoothies. According to researchers from the University of Teramo in Italy, some insects have more antioxidants than orange juice and olive oil.
Mauro Serafini, professor of human nutrition at Teramo University and the study’s co-author, said eating insects doesn’t only need to be about raising sustainable sources of protein.
Bugs may contain disease-fighting chemicals that aren’t found in other kinds of foods.
Researchers have long known that insects contain nutrients that are healthy for humans. For example, NC State postdoctoral researcher Sofia Feng created an emergency food from mealworms and sweet potatoes that she described as resembling Cheetos. The mealworms were a good source of protein and healthy fats.
It’s even possible that eating crickets can reduce systemic inflammation in humans, according to a report published in Nature journal online.
Antioxidants are a slightly different ballgame, according to Healthline.com. Think back to high school chemistry class, where you likely learned that everything is made of atoms. Molecules are just atoms stuck together, and things like fat are chains of molecules.
Healthline.com reports that when those molecules are broken down — such as during normal bodily processes — they can lose particles called electrons and become free radicals that damage the body. Antioxidants can stop free radicals by donating electrons.
But Serafini says someone can experience “oxidative stress” if he or she has too many free radicals from unhealthy habits, like smoking, or not enough antioxidants, a result of unhealthy eating habits.
“Oxidative stress is a risk factor for all degenerative diseases, like cardiovascular disease, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, cancer and aging,” Serafini said.
That’s where the bugs come hopping into the picture. Serafini and his partners bought commonly eaten insects and arachnids from suppliers in the United Kingdom and France, including silkworms, scorpions, cicadas and tarantulas. They ground the insects, removing tiny stingers and paws, and extracted the fat. Then they tested the antioxidant content of each insect, and came up with surprising results.
Some extracts of grasshoppers, silkworms and crickets contained the highest antioxidant capacity of all the creatures tested — five times more than orange juice. The fat from insects like silkworms and cicadas had twice the antioxidant capacity of olive oil.
The study led to even further mysteries. Some insects, like grasshoppers, meal worms and black ants, had the highest levels of polyphenols, or antioxidant chemicals that can be naturally found in plants.
But the antioxidant activity of insects didn’t come entirely from polyphenols or other known antioxidants. So what exactly are the antioxidants in bugs? And how do insect antioxidants affect humans? Serafini hopes to answer those questions with further research.
Entomophagy: delicious and sustainable
This should be good news to entomophagists — people who eat insects — all over the globe. North Carolina has its own fair share of insect and arachnid eaters, thanks to the North Carolina Museum of Natural Science’s BugFest, where people can dine on delicacies like gourmet fried dragonflies, The News & Observer has previously reported.
“The average person eats about two pounds of bug parts in their processed food each year,” said Brad Hiatt, entomologist with the Butterfly Garden and Insectarium in New Orleans. Hiatt will be at the North Carolina museum’s 24th annual BugFest this fall, cooking up insect delights. (This year’s theme is beatles.)
“Chocolate and peanut butter have some of the highest allowed levels,” he said.
Hiatt doesn’t want to gross people out, but also wants them to know they’re already eating bugs. Why not take the next step and start using them as a centerpiece of recipes?
Kari Wouk, educator at the N.C. Museum of Science, agrees. She has been coordinating BugFest for 12 years. One of her favorite moments at BugFest happened 14 years ago, when she was a volunteer for the event.
“I remember my first walk down the line at Café Insecta,” said Wouk, describing the area where attendees can partake of gourmet bugs prepared by chefs. “They were serving ‘antchiladas,’ which were basically enchiladas with sauce and ants poured all over the top.”
Now, Wouk said, BugFest chefs go less for the shock factor and are moving towards showing people how to make insect dishes that look appealing.
Wouk sees edible insects as a way to help the planet, and draw attention to global insect population collapse. She and Serafini say insects are healthy for people to eat, and they use less land and water than some other sources of protein. For Serafini, the potential to decrease the risk of diseases influenced by oxidative stress is a bonus.
They’re also just plain cool, said Adrian Smith, an ant researcher at the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences. He extolls “the unseen incredibleness of mealworms” on YouTube.
Wouk even carries her love for insects into her home, gently scooping up spiders to relocate them outside. Her husband bought a special vacuum that sucks up ants without harming them.
“That’s the thoughtfulness and awareness that we’re trying to instill in people with BugFest,” she said. “Our first inclination when encountering bugs shouldn’t be that they should die, it should be to ask how can we live in harmony.”
Where to find edible bugs
Convinced? Looking for some tasty bugs to eat? Vitamin Shoppes in Greenville, Burlington, and Charlotte sell Chirps chips made with crickets. BugFest 2019 is returning to the science museum in Raleigh on Sept. 21. Companies like Entomo Farms or Chapul will ship edible insect products to your door. And there are many recipes to try.
If you’re looking to hunt the wild grasshopper, Hiatt suggests getting a good field guide for identification. He also recommended searching for insects in rural areas away from farms that spray pesticides, and avoiding brightly colored ones that might be toxic.
“Usually camouflaged ones like crickets and grasshoppers are your best friends,” Hiatt said. “Cockroaches are edible, too, and they use a lot of camo and speed to escape predators.”
Edible larvae found buried in the ground or rotten wood are likely to be edible, he explained, since they don’t need poison to protect themselves.
To process grasshoppers and other leggy beings, Hiatt freezes them and rolls them in a colander to remove the spiny appendages. Then he roasts them in a single layer on a pan for 30 minutes at 350 degrees. They can be frozen after this, or fried in butter with spices.
Travel can offer good exposure to insect delights. Hiatt described eating fried ant eggs in Oaxaca, Mexico, along with worm salt made from roasted caterpillars and seasonings. He also noted the allure of African swarming locusts, fried centipedes and spiders in Asian cuisine, and the Australian Witchetty grub, the taste of which the Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity describes as “reminiscent of egg yolk, pop corn and almonds.”
Those interested also can raise bugs themselves. What’s the best part about insect rearing? Serafini said being able to control bugs’ diets might affect antioxidant levels. In the future, insect superfoods may be eaten alongside our kale and blueberries.
When: Sept. 21, 9 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Where: N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences, 11 W. Jones St., Raleigh