Would you eat crickets to improve your gut health?
Would you consider replacing your favourite meat dish with insects, either for the taste, or for the health benefits? A US researcher studying their effect on health advocates insects as a potentially nutritious and tasty snack.
Valerie Stull, a recent doctoral graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies and herself an insect eater, is the co-founder of the startup and research collaboration MIGHTi, the Mission to Improve Global Health Through Insects. Having tried – and enjoyed – insects on vacation at age 12, she is aiming to promote them as a more mainstream food in the United States.
In her latest research, published in Scientific Reports, Stull and her team recruited 20 healthy men and women between the ages of 18 and 48 for a small pilot study looking at the possible effects of eating crickets on the gut microbiome.
Participants were asked to eat either a control breakfast or a breakfast containing 25g of powdered cricket meal made into muffins and shakes for two weeks.
Each participant then ate a normal diet for a two-week "washout period".
For the next two weeks, those who had started on the cricket diet consumed a control breakfast, while those who started on the control diet switched to a cricket breakfast.
Analysing blood and samples, and participants' answers to gastrointestinal questionnaires, the researchers found that eating the cricket breakfast appeared to cause an increase in a metabolic enzyme associated with gut health, and a decrease in an inflammatory protein in the blood called TNF-alpha, which has been linked to other measures of well-being, like depression and cancer.
In addition, the team saw an increase in the amount of beneficial gut bacteria such as Bifidobacterium animalis, a strain that has been linked to improved gastrointestinal function.
Participants reported no significant gastrointestinal changes or side effects.
Crickets, like other insects, contain fibres such as chitin which are different from the dietary fibre found in foods like fruits and vegetables. Fibre is a microbial food source, with some types known to promote the growth of beneficial bacteria; this may be why cricket consumption could have a positive influence on the bacteria found in the gastrointestinal tract.
The researchers acknowledged that the pilot study was very small, and that larger studies are needed to replicate the findings and determine what exactly what components of crickets may contribute to improved gut health.
However, Stull added, "This very small study shows that this is something worth looking at in the future when promoting insects as a sustainable food source."
Globally, over 2 billion people regularly consume insects, which are a good source of protein, vitamins, minerals and healthy fats, as well as a more sustainable and environmentally-friendly food source than livestock.
Though the insect industry in countries such as the US is still small, Stull is not the only person open to the idea of using insects as a source of dietary protein to reduce our high consumption of meat.
A Finnish bakery group announced last year that it would be the first in the world to offer bread made out of insects at grocery stores, while Atelier à Pates, an artisanal pasta maker in France, now uses ground insect flour in one of its homemade pasta dishes. Insects have also found their way onto the menus of high-end Thai restaurants, helping to change their image in the country as "food for the poor."