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Edible insects

High in protein, crickets, mealworms, and ants are growing in popularity as an alternative food source, with Brazil taking its first steps into the market

Conventional foods and dehydrated crickets (second pot from the left): an insect commonly eaten by humans in some parts of the world

Léo Ramos Chaves

In Piracicaba, a city in the state of São Paulo known as the silicon valley of Brazilian agribusiness (it is home to about 40% of the sector’s startups), a new branch of agriculture is emerging: a bio-factory is being built to farm crickets. The semiautomated system for mass-producing Gryllus assimilis was designed by the startup Hakkuna. The company will use them as raw material for the industrial-scale production of cricket-flour-based protein bars, which Hakkuna has been making on a small scale since 2015. “Insect farming in Brazil is still very artisanal. What we are doing is reducing human labor and standardizing production,” says the startup’s founding partner, materials engineer Luiz Filipe Carvalho.

Patrícia Milano, a biologist with a PhD in entomology who works at the Entomology Department of the Luiz de Queiroz School of Agriculture at the University of São Paulo (ESALQ-USP), is also preparing to compete in the edible insect market. In 2016 she founded Ecological Food, which sells insects to be used in animal feed. With support from FAPESP’s Research for Innovation in Small Businesses (RISB, or PIPE in the Portuguese acronym) program and ESALQ-USP’s EsalqTec incubator, Milano developed a specific diet for crickets and cockroaches.

“The results were excellent. It improved the insect production system, resulting in organisms with greater nutritional value without making production any more expensive,” she says. Now, Milano intends to continue the project, perfecting her methodology to farm certain species for human consumption. Ecological Food is located in Limeira, São Paulo State, roughly 40 kilometers from Piracicaba.

Luiz Filipe Carvalho and Patrícia Milano are following a global trend. Interest in insects as a food source is growing. According to Dutch scientist Arnold van Huis, a leading researcher in the field of entomophagy (the use of insects as food by humans), the Web of Science international database shows there has been exponential growth in the number of academic articles published on the subject, especially since 2015 (see graph). Van Huis is a professor at Wageningen University, located in the Dutch city of the same name, and editor of the scientific publication Journal of Insects as Food and Feed.

The revenue of companies investing in insects as ingredients for animal or human food is also rising. Market research firm Meticulous Research estimated the value of the edible insects market in 2018 at US$406.3 million and predicts that it will triple by 2023. One of the most successful businesses in the sector is Dutch company Protix, which received investments of US$50 million in 2017 to produce insects to be used in human and animal food.

Insects have long been part of the human diet. It is estimated that they are eaten by roughly 2 billion people worldwide

In Brazil, Hakkuna and Ecological Food are attempting to ride this wave. The Hakkuna project to mass produce Gryllus assimilis started its first phase in March and uses automatic systems to control environmental conditions, such as temperature and humidity levels. The container being used in Piracicaba will also have sensors to control an automatic feeder—initially delivering poultry feed, until the company can develop a specific feed.

Hakkuna, explains Carvalho, was born from a personal interest in sports nutrition. “I have always practiced sports and saw the need for more natural and healthier protein options on the menu. In mid-2015 I started researching what was being done abroad and found an American startup, called Exoprotein, making protein bars from cricket flour. I found the idea interesting and looked into who was doing it in Brazil. I couldn’t find anyone,” he says. “So, I took an online course on insect breeding, bought 100 grams of live crickets, and started testing products and the market. And thus, Hakkuna was born.”

When dehydrated and ground into flour, crickets offer an alternative to other foods and supplements, such as whey protein, which is widely consumed by gym-goers. According to Carvalho, who started the company in partnership with agribusiness engineer Marcelo Romano Teixeira, insects are better in a number of ways: as well as providing the same essential amino acids, the flour made from them also contains fibers and omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, which are not found in whey protein. In addition to protein flour and bars, he also plans to create other snacks. Like Ecological Food, Hakkuna is supported by RISB and EsalqTec, as well as the GrowBio accelerator.

Although currently growing in popularity, insects have actually been eaten by human beings for a long time. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), at least 2 billion people around the world eat insects. More than 1,900 species—including beetles, caterpillars, wasps, ants, grasshoppers, and crickets—are part of traditional diets in Asia, Africa, and indigenous communities in Latin America. Research suggests that it has been customary since prehistoric times.

What is new is that they are now starting to arrive in restaurants and on supermarket shelves in large cities across Europe, the USA, and more recently, Brazil. French brand Jimini´s was one of the earlier pioneers. Founded in 2012, it produces insect-based cereal bars, pasta, and granola, as well as dehydrated, seasoned insect snacks, such as mealworms (beetle larvae) flavored with garlic and fine herbs. These foods were initially only sold on the company’s website, but in early 2018, after the European Union approved and regulated the sale of insects for human consumption, Jimini´s started selling its range in the Carrefour supermarket chain in Spain, for between €2 and €7. The insects are bred on farms in Europe. American snack food producer Chirps, meanwhile, imports the raw material for its flour, snacks, and biscuits from Thailand, where there is an estimated 20,000 cricket farms—the country is one of the global leaders in the sector.

High in protein, iron, and calcium, insects offer nutritional advantages and have less of an impact on the environment

In Germany, BugFoundation sells hamburgers made of a protein mixture based on soy and Alphitobius diaperinus mealworms. According to the manufacturers, the taste is similar to sunflower or peanut seeds. The animals are farmed in the Netherlands, one of the first western countries to allow the sale and consumption of food products containing insects.

German veterinarian Nils Grabowski, head of the Department of Hygiene and Technology of Productive Insects at the University of Veterinary Medicine Hanover in the north of the country, attests that the market for edible insects in Germany is small, but seems to be growing. “Germany is a country with no real tradition of entomophagy. Insect eating was considered a curious habit practiced by foreign people with no access to ‘real’ food, who need to eat them to survive. Of course, this is far from the truth. People don’t eat insects because they need to, but because they want to,” Grabowski told Pesquisa FAPESP.

Research in Thailand, he said, showed that most people buy these products because of their taste. “Thai people love to eat fried insects with a cold beer,” he says. And the delicacies can be expensive. “In Mexico, the pupae of the ant genus Liometopum, also known as ‘Aztec caviar,’ costs more than US$50 [R$250] for a portion of 30 grams,” says the veterinarian. “And the giant water bug (Lethocerus indicus), which is very popular in Thailand, is sold for the equivalent of €0.20 [R$1.10] a piece. Demand is so high that Thailand imports them from neighboring nations.”

Grabowski runs the IFNext project, working with researchers in Thailand and Cambodia to develop starter kits for farming Gryllus bimaculatus and Teleogryllus mitratus crickets and Bombyx mori silkworms, as well as new products made from these insects.

On a global level, whole insects still represent the largest share of the market, mainly due to their greater availability and lower cost compared to processed products. However, it is estimated that the market for insect flours and protein bars and shakes will grow faster in the coming years due to the greater value younger generations tend to place on healthy lifestyles and balanced diets.

For the FAO, the importance of insects is even greater. As decomposers in the food chain that break down organic matter, and as pollinators contributing to plant reproduction, they are fundamental to human existence. As a result, they are seen by many as a sustainable solution to the growing global food demand, caused by population growth and a scarcity of natural resources. According to the report Edible insects – Future prospects for food and feed security, written by the FAO, there will be roughly 9 billion people in the world in 2050, and food production will need to double in order to feed them all. The estimated demand for agricultural products in 2050 is 465 million tons, compared to 229 million tons in 2000. The document points out that “feeding future populations will require the development of alternative sources of protein, such as cultured meat, seaweed, beans, fungi, and insects.”

As a protein source, insects offer nutritional advantages and reduce environmental impact. “Their iron, calcium, and protein levels are higher than those found in poultry, cattle, and pigs. Producing them requires less water, emits less pollution, and can be done in buildings, avoiding the need to clear large areas of forest,” says entomologist Patrícia Milano. The researcher has already incorporated insects into her diet, and whenever possible, she offers them, fried or coated in chocolate, to friends, relatives, students, and attendees at lectures she has given at universities, conferences, and scientific events.

The FAO report also highlights that insects have a high feed conversion ratio, meaning they more efficiently transform the feed they consume into body mass. Grasshoppers convert 2 kilograms (kg) of feed into 1 kg of body weight, while cattle require 10 kg of feed to provide 1 kg of body weight (see infographic).

Another advantage of insects compared to mammals and birds is the lower risk of transmitting zoonoses, contrary to the common belief that they carry more disease. In general, they are safe, as long as they are bred under controlled conditions and processed correctly, according to  veterinarian Nils Grabowski, who conducted a microbiological analysis of these animals. The German researcher analyzed 38 samples of insects prepared in various forms and concluded that they contain a higher number of bacteria when dried than when cooked or fried.

Experts say that Brazil could become one of the world’s leading insect producers by focusing on exports

All samples were negative for pathogens such as salmonella, Listeria monocytogenes, Escherichia coli, and Staphylococcus aureus, but dried and powdered insects contained some foodborne pathogens, such as bacteria and fungi. “Heating and drying the insects kills many types of microorganisms, but some can withstand these processes, especially spore-forming bacteria. Efficient heat treatment to eliminate microorganisms that can survive hot and dry environments is therefore also important,” advises the researcher.

Extra precautions should be taken by anyone who is allergic to seafood. Insects, like crustaceans—both members of the arthropod phylum—have a chitin-based exoskeleton, which can cause allergic reactions. Anyone who can eat shrimp or lobster without issue, however, should have no problem eating grasshoppers or caterpillars—and they may even find the texture somewhat similar.

Challenges to popularization
For almost 30 years, biologist Eraldo Medeiros Costa Neto, from the State University of Feira de Santana (UEFS), has been studying ethnoentomology, a branch of science that examines how insects are perceived and used by human populations. He notes that many rural communities in Brazil traditionally eat insects. But popularizing them in major urban areas remains a serious challenge. In addition to the common preconceptions, most Brazilians have a strong aversion to eating insects.

For agronomist Ramon Santos de Minas, from the Federal Institute of Mato Grosso do Sul (IFMS), information is the best way to promote this alternative food source. He is the author of the books Antropoentomofagia e entomofagia: Insetos, a salvação nutricional da humanidade (Anthropoentomophagy and entomophagy: Insects, the nutritional salvation of humanity) (Kiron, 2016) and Insetos na alimentação humana: Guia prático de receitas (Insects in human food: A practical recipe guide) (Kiron, 2019). The latter was released in partnership with food technologist Angela Kwiatkowski during Insetec 2019, the 1st Brazilian Conference on Food Insects and Associated Technologies. The event, organized by the Brazilian Association of Insect Breeders (ASBRACI) with support from the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG), brought together about 300 participants, including insect breeders, Brazilian and foreign researchers, and representatives of government agencies.

“When I started researching the topic in 2012, I realized that there was little information in Brazil, only in journals and written in scientific language. I tried to write something more simplified, that could reach a wider audience,” says the agronomist from IFMS, who has also been giving lectures on edible insects and holding tasting sessions. “Wherever I go, the reception is good,” says Minas. He does not, however, expect people to change their habits in the short term. “I believe that due to cultural issues and the abundance and variety of food that we have in the country, it will be a long time before we see Brazilians routinely buying insects at the supermarket. But we have the capacity and the climate to become a major exporter,” he says.

CHIRPS Snacks sold by American company made from processed insectsCHIRPS

This is also the opinion of zootechnician Gilberto Schickler, who produces insects for animal feed. Shickler is the founder of Nutrinsecta, one of the first companies in the country to obtain registration with the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock, and Food Supply’s Federal Inspection Service (SIF) for processing insects to be used in animal feed, in 2012.

According to him, Brazil does not need a domestic market to enter this new and promising agribusiness industry. “We can export 100% of our production. We have the perfect environmental conditions to become one of the world’s leading insect-producing nations, just as we already are for other proteins of animal origin,” Shickler says.

To achieve this, however, prices must be competitive. “Today, 1 kilogram of dehydrated insects costs at least R$250 in Brazil. Japan, which is a major consumer, pays R$70 reais per kilo,” notes gastrologist Casé Oliveira, president of ASBRACI. For national insect farmers to be able to offer competitive prices, says Oliveira, they have to increase production volume.

Another constraint in this new market is regulation. The sector is governed by two bodies: The Ministry of Agriculture, which controls products of animal origin, whether for human or animal consumption, and the Brazilian Health Regulatory Agency (ANVISA), which is linked to the Ministry of Health and is responsible for approving new ingredients for human consumption.

Today, most insect producers, especially those targeting the human food market, work informally on a small scale. Casé Oliveira himself has his own brand, Bugs Cook, that makes handmade, limited-edition chocolate-coated crickets, mealworms, and ants. But if he wanted to manufacture his chocolates on an industrial scale, he would need to buy the raw material from a producer registered with the SIF and request authorization from ANVISA. The Ministry of Agriculture even allows insects to be bred, slaughtered, and turned into food in the same location, as long as each stage is carried out in an independent structure and sanitary conditions are guaranteed.

BugFoundation Hamburger by German company BugFoundation made from processed insectsBugFoundation

ANVISA does not yet have any specific guidelines for these products. The agency’s only reference on the subject is Collegiate Board Resolution (RDC) No. 14, of 2014, which establishes tolerable limits for the presence of insect fragments in food resulting from failures in the production process.

The ANVISA press office states that companies interested in selling insect food products in Brazil must undergo analysis by the agency. “Such products would be classified as a new food. This is all theoretical, since ANVISA has never received any request for analysis of foods containing insects,” affirms the agency.

“I believe that as the products become more popular and prices fall, companies will begin implementing regulatory processes,” says Oliveira, from ASBRACI. He says the organization has created a working group with ANVISA and members of the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock, and Food Supply (MAPA) to encourage professionalization of the sector.

Veterinarian Ricardo Moreira Calil, federal agricultural tax auditor at MAPA, says the regulations provide security for consumers and greater business opportunities for producers. “We need to regulate in a way that encourages more interest in manufacturing these products, which will drive the price down. At Insetec 2019, I met producers from Portugal who are planning to export to the European community. A country the size of Brazil must not be left out of this market,” he declares.

Calil agrees with the FAO that new food sources should be explored to guarantee the future of the human species. “Science clearly shows that throughout history, we have eaten whatever was available. Humankind conquered the planet thanks to its diverse diet,” says the MAPA employee. “Any alternative food source that can increase our nutritional diversity is highly favorable. And insects are a good option.”

A global delicacy
Learn more about insect consumption around the world

Sean Gallup / Getty Images Crickets, grasshoppers, and mealworms are appreciated on five continentsSean Gallup / Getty Images

One of the most consumed insects on the planet is the cochineal (Dactylopius coccus), although many people do not even know that it is part of their diet. This animal is used to make a red dye called carmine, used by the food industry worldwide.

In Cameroon, it is common to eat the larvae of the African palm weevil (Rhynchophorus). The women are tasked with harvesting them from palm trees by placing their ears against the trunk and listening for the sound of the grubs digging inside. The same method is used in the Democratic Republic of Congo to collect scarab and beetle grubs, which are found in several palm tree species.

More than 80 insect species are consumed in Thailand, from rural areas to the city streets of Bangkok. Many of them come canned, such as crickets, silkworm pupae, and bamboo larvae. Between 150 and 200 different species are also eaten in Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, and Vietnam.

The most popular edible insect is the Oxya yezoensis grasshopper. Known locally as inago, it is cooked with soy sauce and sugar and sold in cans.

The chapulin (the Sphenarium purpurascens grasshopper) is so popular that it even inspired a TV character, “El Chapulín Colorado.” Mexicans eat chapulines in tortillas with salt, lemon, and pepper, or coated in chocolate.

A total of 135 species of edible insects are found in the country. The most commonly consumed are the hymenoptera (an order that includes many ants), with 63% of the total, followed by the coleoptera (beetles), with 16%, and the orthopterans (grasshoppers and crickets), at 7%.

In the North, especially on the river island of Marajó, there is an indigenous tradition of eating the “tucumã bug,” the larva of a beetle species (Speciomerus ruficornis) that lives in the seeds of the Astrocaryum aculeatum palm tree. They can be eaten raw or fried. Insect oil (or lard) can also be extracted from the larvae, which can be eaten pure, as a substitute for butter in bread, or used to fry of eggs and meat.

In the Xingu National Park, insects are a food source for many indigenous ethnic groups.
Ant species such as the saúva or tanajura (of the genus Atta), as well as cicadas, termites, and grasshoppers, are also commonly eaten. In rural Pernambuco, tanajura ants are often served as bar snacks. The delicacy is most commonly available when the insects swarm in April and May.

The tradition of eating tanajura ants is also popular in the Northeast of Brazil, rural areas of Minas Gerais, and the Paraíba Valley in São Paulo State, where they are ground into a flour.

In Minas Gerais and parts of the North and Northeast, people commonly consume the larvae of the beetle species Pachymerus nucleorum, which develop inside coconuts, babassus, and carnauba fruit. They are usually fried and then served with tapioca or rice.

Insects in the veins
Some insect species are also used in traditional medicine

As well as being safe and suitable for human consumption, insects can also have medicinal effects, says biologist Eraldo Medeiros Costa Neto, from the State University of Feira de Santana (UEFS) in Bahia. “In Pará, for example, the oil of the tucumã bug is widely used as a traditional remedy. The substance is extracted from the larva of a beetle [Astrocaryum vulgare] that lives inside the fruit of the tucumã palm tree. It is commonly used to treat joint pain,” he says. Costa Neto has been studying the use of insects in cooking and folk medicine since 1994.  Through his research in the field of ethnoentomology, which seeks to understand how insects are perceived and used by humans, he has identified medicinal uses for a range of insect species. It is even a part of his own family tradition. “As a child, my mother used to put peanut beetles [Palembus dermestoides] in my soup as a fortifier,” recalls the researcher. The small black beetle species is still used to treat various diseases, including bronchitis, asthma, and rheumatism.

The researcher believes that much traditional wisdom still lacks scientific evidence. Perhaps the nutritional richness of these foods explains their reputation. “Insects absorb the nutritional properties of the vegetables they feed on. Peanuts, for example, are very rich in nutrients, which are incorporated by the beetles that eat them,” he suggests.

According to biologist Patrícia Milano, from ESALQ-USP, research has already shown that insects can act as probiotics, or in other words, as nondigestible food components that stimulate the proliferation of beneficial bacteria in the intestine.
“Nutritionist Valerie Stull, from the University of Wisconsin-Madison [USA], found that crickets can increase the number of Bifidobacterium animalis, a species of bacteria beneficial to our microbiota that inhibits pathogens. This alteration could be linked to the fiber in the insects,” reports the researcher.

Research and development of an optimized and semi-automated system at the Hakkuna biofactory for mass production of Gryllus assimilis crickets (Orthoptera: Gryllidae) (no. 19/00735-7); Grant Mechanism Research for Innovation in Small Businesses (RISB); Principal Investigator Marcelo Romano Teixeira (Hakkuna); Investment R$95,004.97.
2. Insects for animal and human food: Adaptations and research for future mass farming in Brazil (no. 16/00152-3); Grant Mechanism Research for Innovation in Small Businesses (RISB); Principal Investigator Patrícia Milano; Investment R$102,225.56.

Scientific articles
VAN HUIS, A. Insects as food and feed, a new emerging agricultural sector: A review. Journal of Insects as Food and Feed. Aug. 27, 2019.
GRABOWSKI, N. T. et al. Microbiology of processed edible insect products – Results of a preliminary survey. International Journal of Food Microbiology. Feb. 21, 2017.
SCHARDONG, I. S. et al. Percepção de consumidores brasileiros aos insetos comestíveis. Ciência Rural. Vol. 49, no. 10. Sep. 23, 2019.