While entomophagy — eating insects — may sound new or unusual to some in the West, it has been commonplace in cultures worldwide for centuries (1).

For example, many people in Asia, Africa, and Latin America depend on insects as part of their diets. In some cases, insects are even considered delicacies rather than just another source of vital nutrients.

The most commonly consumed insects around the world are beetles, caterpillars, bees, wasps, and ants. Ants specifically offer an environmentally friendly source of quality protein that may support heart health and combat oxidative stress (2, 3).

This article tells you all there is to know about eating ants, including the benefits and potential downsides.

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Cultural practices strongly influence who eats insects, and while most Western countries refrain from it, insects are an important food source in many regions of the world (2).

As you can imagine, there are numerous ant species, and not all of them tend to be consumed.

Here are some of the most popular edible ants and the countries in which they are eaten:

  • Leaf-cutting ants. Leaf-cutting ants are especially popular in Latin American countries, including Mexico, Colombia, Panama, and Brazil. Their name comes from their ability to cut leaves to feed fungi, which they use to feed their larvae (2, 4, 5).
  • Weaver ants. Weaver ants are consumed in China, India, Indonesia, Laos, Myanmar, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, Thailand, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Cameroon, Bangladesh, India, Malaysia, and Sri Lanka. They’re called weaver ants because they weave the leaves of living trees with silk to form their nests (2).
  • Honey ants. Honey ants are commonly consumed by Indigenous communities in Australia. They’re also called honeypot ants because they use their stomachs to store honey to feed their colony in times of scarcity (2).
  • Black ants. Black ants are typically consumed in China and Kenya (6).
Summary

Ants are commonly consumed in many Asian, African, and Latin American countries. Some of the most popular types of edible ants are leaf-cutting, weaver, honey, and black ants.

Generally, ants can be eaten in larvae or adult form. They may be consumed whole or as an ingredient in various dishes (2, 7).

Preparation techniques vary by country and by ant species.

For example, the larvae and eggs of weaver ants are preferred over the adults, since adult ants have less flavor. However, adults are still used as a condiment.

Here are some other examples of how ants are prepared around the world:

  • Laos. Weaver ants are used to add acidity to fish soups, similarly to how citrus is used in Western countries (2).
  • Thailand. Weaver ants are sold in cans (2).
  • Peruvian Amazon. Weaver ants are typically roasted or fried. The larvae are commonly roasted and mixed with cassava flour (4).
  • Colombia. Leaf-cutting ant queens are sold fried at local markets (5).
  • Mexico. Leaf-cutting ants are usually roasted and ground to flavor mayonnaise and prepare sauces (7, 8).
  • India. Weaver ants’ eggs and larvae are boiled with spices, and adult ants are prepared as chutney mixed with chili and salt (9).
Summary

Different cultures prepare ants using different methods. Roasting, frying, and boiling are common.

The nutritional value of insects — including ants — varies widely depending on the species. It is also influenced by their metamorphic stage, diet, and habitat. Nevertheless, ants tend to be high in protein, fiber, vitamins, and minerals (2).

For instance, weaver ants’ larvae and eggs provide around 7 grams of protein per 100 grams in weight. In contrast, adult leaf-cutting ants and black ants contain an average of 42–53 grams and 40–45 grams of protein per 100 grams, respectively (1, 2, 4, 5, 6).

In addition, ants provide fiber and minerals, such as iron, zinc, magnesium, potassium, and phosphorus (1, 6).

The most common type of fiber in insects is chitin, which is derived from their external skeleton. It is insoluble fiber — the kind your body cannot digest (2, 7).

Summary

The nutritional value of ants varies depending on the species and the ants’ metamorphic stage, diet, and habitat. They mostly provide protein, fiber, and minerals.

Traditional uses for ants vary by region and culture. They may be used to treat asthma and sore throats, or their heads may be used as stitches to close wounds (5).

However, most of the benefits of ants are associated with the advantages of consuming insects in general, such as providing an environmentally friendly, alternative source of animal protein.

Environmentally friendly

In recent years, finding sustainable ways to increase food production to feed the world’s growing population has been a concern.

As edible insects, ants may become part of the emerging trends focused on providing healthier and more sustainable diets (2).

Insects in general are considered a sustainable food source due to their low environmental impact.

For starters, they tend to have a high feed conversion efficiency, which refers to an animal’s capacity to convert feed mass into increased body mass.

This means they need fewer kilograms of feed for every kilogram of weight gain compared with other protein sources. For example, crickets need 12 times less feed than cattle and 4 times less feed than sheep (2).

In addition, insects help reduce environmental contamination. They’re very efficient at bioconverting organic waste — meaning they can convert animal or plant waste into an energy source (2).

Insects are also credited with the following environmental benefits (2, 7, 10):

  • They emit little ammonia and few greenhouse gases.
  • They have reduced water needs compared to cattle.
  • They’re believed to present fewer animal welfare issues.
  • They have a lower risk of transmitting infections to humans than mammals and birds do.

Because ants are efficient and less taxing on the environment, including ants as a protein source may help reduce usage of other limited natural resources, such as land, energy, and water.

Even so, the sustainability of ants depends on good collection practices. Unsustainable collection methods may become detrimental to their natural environment (2).

Alternative animal-based protein food

Rapid population growth around the world has increased the global demand for meat, but many consider current models of meat production unsustainable. Therefore, alternative animal protein sources may help reduce pressure on the environment (7, 11).

Ants are an animal-based protein source that may help increase dietary quality and overall protein intake (2, 12).

Insects’ high protein content has raised interest as an alternative to milk, meat, fish, and eggs for human consumption. In fact, in countries where entomophagy is a common practice, insects are a valued source of protein (1, 13).

However, there are still very few human studies on insect consumption. Thus, Western companies are focusing on using insects as animal feed and pet food for now (1, 10).

Other purported benefits

Although these benefits are less studied than others, ants may be beneficial as a source of antioxidants and may contribute to heart health.

Antioxidant-rich foods are key for preventing oxidative stress-related diseases such as heart disease and cancer. One study determined that black ants have high levels of antioxidants — namely polyphenols — comparable to those in orange juice (14).

However, more studies on ants’ effects on human health are needed.

In terms of heart health, one 2-week study in healthy adults determined that a daily intake of 3–6 grams of chitin reduced total cholesterol and increased HDL (good) cholesterol levels (1).

But again, we need more research on how chitin from ants affects human health.

Summary

The benefits of eating ants come mainly from their low environmental impact and high protein quality. They may also offer antioxidants and support heart health.

Due to the lack of human studies on eating ants, there is little scientific evidence regarding their potential downsides.

For instance, some research suggests that chitin may be a potential food allergen, while other studies imply that it may actually improve some people’s immune responses (2).

Additionally, research suggests that ants may be a source of purines — compounds found in proteins — and increase uric acid production, which may be harmful to people with gout (7).

However, further research is needed.

Summary

There’s mixed evidence on the potential allergenic effect of chitin from ants. Similarly, it is not clear whether ants are a source of purines, so people with gout should consume them sparingly.

Generally, edible ant species are safe to eat, posing no more risks than other animal products. Processing and storage should follow the same health and sanitization regulations as any other food, including thorough washing and heating when cooking (1, 2, 7).

That being said, there are a couple of considerations to keep in mind when consuming ants.

On one hand, consuming whole ants means you’d also consume their microbiota, or gut bacteria, which may lead to parasite ingestion. Specifically, the parasite Dicrocoelium dendriticum may infect humans who eat ants that contain metacercariae (13).

However, cases of dicrocoeliosis — the infection caused by the parasite — are very rare (15).

On the other hand, not all ants are edible. Some ants, such as fire and jack jumper ants, have organs that produce poison.

While the poison is usually deactivated in your digestive tract, there’s a risk of stings in your mouth or esophagus, which may cause fatal allergic reactions (12, 16, 17).

Summary

Edible ants are generally safe to eat. However, consuming whole ants increases your risk of parasitic infections. You should avoid consuming poisonous types of ants to minimize the risk of allergic reactions.

Eating ants is a common practice in many countries around the world, where they’re used as ingredients in recipes or consumed by themselves.

While there’s not much research regarding their benefits and downsides, ants are an environmentally friendly animal-based protein source.

Though edible ants are safe to eat, there’s a small risk of infection if you consume whole ants infected with a specific parasite. Make sure to avoid consuming poisonous types, such as fire ants and jack jumper ants.