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Insectivory 101: The Intentional Eating of Insects

By William Lagakos, Ph.D., Writer
July 22, 2014
Insectivory 101: The Intentional Eating of Insects image

Insectivory is the intentional eating of insects. It is common in many cultures around the world and likely contributed essential nutrition to our ancestors throughout evolution. Sound gross? Sure, at first, but many insects are very nutrient-dense and may be coming to a grocery store near you.

One component of the Paleolithic way of eating is “nose-to-tail,” which is to say that people should look to incorporate all parts of an animal (liver, kidney, heart, brains, feet, etc.) into their diet. But in reality: 1) many people do not do this; and 2) even those who do aren’t eating the whole animal. Possible exceptions to the latter: whole sardines and potentially, insects.

From an environmental sustainability perspective, insectivory is unmatched.

Many insects are a great source of protein, and are very rich in micronutrients such as copper, iron, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus, selenium, and zinc, and the vitamins riboflavin (vitamin B2), pantothenic acid (B5), biotin (B7), and folate (B9).5 100 grams of caterpillars, or a little over 3 ounces, can fulfill almost the entire daily required amount of protein and vitamins. In a recent study, the nutrient composition of a variety of insects showed that cockroaches, beetles, flies, ants, moths, crickets, and many others could theoretically replace a great amount of the meat in our diet, while also providing more fibre.5 Some bugs, butterflies, and locusts have also been found to be rich in healthy fats.

While feeding studies in humans have yet to occur, one rodent study showed the protein quality in crickets was equal to or greater than soy protein, despite both being “complete” proteins.1 Furthermore, supplementing a diet of broiler chickens with 10-15% housefly larvae improved growing performance and carcass quality.2

Our history with insectivory

One recent study discussed evidence of harvesting termites for food on artifacts from the Lower Paleolithic era in South Africa.2 It has been very difficult to assess this quantitatively,3 but Raubenheimer and colleagues suggest up to 20% of caloric intake may have been supplied by insects in some populations of hunter-gatherers.4

What to expect?

Eventually, our grocery stores may start stocking bags of sustainably raised, organic insects. Some vendors, as you may have seen, are actually manufacturing protein and energy bars made with cricket flour. Is it for you? For many people, I suspect the “ick” factor will be strong at first, but if this movement gains in popularity, which I see no reason why it shouldn’t, it just might catch on.


1. Finke MD, DeFoliart GR, Benevenga NJ. Use of a four-parameter logistic model to evaluate the quality of the protein from three insect species when fed to rats. J Nutr. Jun 1989;119(6):864-871.

2. Hwangbo J, Hong EC, Jang A, Kang HK, Oh JS, Kim BW, Park BS. Utilization of house fly-maggots, a feed supplement in the production of broiler chickens. J Environ Biol. Jul 2009;30(4):609-614.

3. Lesnik JJ. Termites in the hominin diet: A meta-analysis of termite genera, species and castes as a dietary supplement for South African robust australopithecines. J Hum Evol. Jun 2014;71:94-104.

4. McGrew, William C. The 'other Faunivory' Revisited: Insectivory in Human and Non-human Primates and the Evolution of Human Diet. Journal of Human Evolution 71 (2014): 4-11. ScienceDirect. Web.

5. Raubenheimer D, Rothman JM, Pontzer H, Simpson SJ. Macronutrient contributions of insects to the diets of hunter-gatherers: A geometric analysis. J Hum Evol. Jun 2014;71:70-76.

6. Rothman, Jessica M., David Raubenheimer, Margaret A.H. Bryer, Maressa Takahashi, and Christopher C. Gilbert. Nutritional Contributions of Insects to Primate Diets: Implications for Primate Evolution. Journal of Human Evolution 71 (2014):59-69. Sciencedirect. Web.

7. Rumpold BA, Schluter OK. Nutritional composition and safety aspects of edible insects. Mol Nutr Food Res. May 2013;57(5):802-823.

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