There are a few things you hope to never find in your food when you dine out, and insects are definitely one of them.
But Space10, a Copenhagen-based “future living lab,” set up in collaboration with Ikea — yes, that Ikea—has been quietly experimenting with what a sustainable fast-food menu of the future might look like, and they’re betting on bugs.
While a spokesperson for Space10 stresses that there are no current plans to replace Ikea’s iconic Swedish meatballs with an insect-filled version, they recently conjured up The Neatball and The Bug Burger in their test kitchen, both of which include mealworms.
The project is part of Space10’s mission to explore how to produce more food with less, and in a more sustainable way, by using alternative ingredients. The Neatball features mealworms and root vegetables like carrots, parsnips and beets, and is served with mashed potatoes, gravy, and lingonberry sauce, in true Swedish fashion.
The Bug Burger patty is made with the larval form of a darkling beetle, beetroot, parsnips, and potatoes, all served on a white flour bun with relish, beetroot and blackcurrant ketchup, chive spread, and hydroponic greens.
How insects stack up nutritionally
“Insects are very nutrient-rich and provide not only protein, but also healthy fats, fiber and many vitamins and minerals,” says Nashville-based nutritionist, Sarah-Jane Bedwell, RD.
There are over 1,900 edible insects around the world and they’re routinely eaten in other countries, according to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations. The most common are beetles, caterpillars, bees, wasps, ants, grasshopper, locusts, and crickets.
“Most edible insects have similar nutritional profiles,” noted Bedwell. “They can vary slightly based on where they are from, what they feed upon, and how they are prepared, but any edible insect is a sustainable, nutrient-rich choice,” she said.
Recent research in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition compared the nutrient content of some of the most commonly eaten insects to conventional meat like chicken, pork, and beef.
All of the insects tested had higher levels of calcium, ounce per ounce, than the meats. They also tended to have at least an equivalent amount of iron, if not more.
Crickets and pork both had 20 grams of protein per 3.5-ounce serving, while mealworms and chicken both had around 19 grams of protein per 3.5-ounce serving.
The catch is, you’d have to eat a whole lot of bugs to get the equivalent serving to a piece of meat.
The environmental impact of eating bugs
Eating a gourmand bug burger doesn’t sound half bad, but is it worth it?
Entomophagy, or the practice of eating bugs, is viewed by the United Nations as a potential way to feed the roughly 9-billion people that will inhabit the earth by 2050. To accommodate this population, our current food production will need to double, they wrote in a 2013 report.
Crickets, they say, need six times less feed than cattle, four times less than sheep, and twice less than pigs and chickens to produce the same amount of protein.
Most research on edible insects has focused on the protein content as an argument for both the environmental and nutritional value of eating bugs.
But one study in the journal PLOS One that looked at crickets, often called the gateway bug to entomophagy, found that even when crickets were fed a grain-based diet, similar to chickens, they contained only slightly higher amounts of protein than chicken. The researchers concluded that the environmental payoff might not be that impactful, because farmers would still need to feed crickets the same diet as conventional livestock.
Why bugs might not hit your plate anytime soon
While the insects studied proved strong in protein content and some micronutrients, they also had higher levels of sodium and saturated fat than the meats. That could be a plus for undernourished populations or athletes, who may need more sodium, but most Americans already consume diets that are too high in sodium and saturated fats.
“People who have limited income or are on a budget could benefit the most from eating insects because they are getting the most nutritional bang for the buck,” said Bedwell.
While you don’t need to chow down on bugs, eating insects could increase fiber and healthy fatty acid intake while still providing protein for a relatively low-calorie amount, she said. (Just call crickets the new chips.)
It’s worth nothing that if you have a crustacean or dust mite allergy, some edible insects could trigger you, research shows.
Bedwell warned that even if you’re intrigued by the idea of eating insects, you shouldn’t rely on them completely.
“I still recommend eating a variety of protein sources if they are available to you, as different sources do have different levels of important nutrients,” she said. Eating a variety is always the best way to ensure you get everything you need.”