Eating ants and other insects could soon be recommended to protect against cancer, following a groundbreaking new study. A series of experiments by Italian scientists show that the ubiquitous invertebrate – in common with others such as grasshoppers and crickets – contains high concentrations of antioxidants.
The compounds are important for reducing chemical reactions in the body that produce free radicals, which are themselves believed to raise the risk of cancer. They have also been linked to higher chances of cardiovascular diseases and diabetes.
Antioxidants are present in a range of foods, including fruit and vegetables. However, many of these consumed in the United Kingdom (UK) have a poor carbon footprint. Food scientists believe western consumers will have to begin incorporating insects into their diet in coming decades, so a group at the University of Rome set out to discover the invertebrates’ antioxidant potential.
They found that after grinding down the insects, many had several times the concentration of antioxidants found in orange juice or olive oil, two of the items most frequently recommended to limit free radicals. The new study is published in the journal Frontiers in Nutrition.
Water-soluble extracts of grasshoppers, silkworm and crickets displayed the highest values of antioxidant capacity, five-fold higher than fresh orange juice. The scientists at the University of Rome ground down various insects including ants, grasshoppers, crickets and silkworm.
They then tested the powder to work out how many antioxidants – compounds such as vitamins A, C and E and beta-carotene – were in them. Only the soluble parts of the insects were used – their wings and stingers were taken off first – with the view of them being consumed as a drink.
Meanwhile grasshoppers, black ants and mealworms contain the highest levels of total polyphenols, another way of characterising antioxidant potential. Fat-soluble extracts of silkworm, giant cicada and Africa caterpillars showed an antioxidant capacity twice that of olive oil.
Prof. Mauro Serafini, who led the research, said: “At least two billion people – a quarter of the world’s population – regularly eat insects. The rest of us will need a bit more encouragement. “Edible insects are an excellent source of protein, polyunsaturated fatty acids, minerals, vitamins and fiber.
“But until now, nobody had compared them with classical functional foods such as olive oil or orange juice in terms of antioxidant activity. “In the future, we might also adapt dietary regimens for insect rearing in order to increase their antioxidant content for animal or human consumption.” Insects are gradually crawling their way into the UK diet.
Last November Sainsbury’s announced it would become the first British supermarket to stock edible bugs, launching Eat Grub’s Smoky BBQ Crunchy Roasted Crickets in 250 stores across the country. The crickets are marketed as both a standalone snack or to garnish dishes such as tacos, noodles or salads.
In 2017 Deliveroo customers in parts of London started being able to order morsels such as spicy cricket rice cakes, salted cricket and smoked tomato salad, as well as buffalo worms wrapped in a beta leaf through the app.
For the new research, the team tested a range of commercially available edible insects and invertebrates, using various measures of antioxidant activity.
Inedible parts like wings and stings were removed, then the insects were ground and two parts extracted for each species: the fat, and anything remaining that would dissolve in water. Each extract was then tested separately. The insects that were themselves vegetarian had much higher antioxidant capacity compared to those such as tarantulas and black scorpions.
Among the different species available for human consumption, Coleoptera (beetles), Lepidoptera (African caterpillars) and Hymenoptera (bees, wasps and ants) represent 31, 18 and 14 per cent of total insect consumption around the world respectively.
Until now several studies have shown that besides the traditional use of insects such as crickets, termites and grasshoppers as part of the Nigerian diet for their nutritive values, they could be bioengineered for the treatment of cancer, diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, Human Immuno-deficiency Virus (HIV), wounds, obesity, malnutrition among other benefits.
According to a 2013 report from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations (UN), around two billion people worldwide eat insects as part of a traditional diet – a practice known as entomophagy.
Beetles are the most commonly consumed insect, followed by caterpillars, bees, wasps, ants, grasshoppers, locusts, and crickets. All in all, more than 1,900 insect species are considered edible. Entomophagy is a common practice in many parts of the world, including China, Africa, Asia, Australia, New Zealand, and some developing regions of Central and South America.
An earlier study published in the Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry found that insects could provide as much magnesium, iron, and other nutrients as steak. And researchers at the American Chemical Society (ACS) found grasshoppers and crickets to be a far better source of many nutrients, particularly iron, compared to beef.
Grasshoppers, mealworms, termites and crickets all had higher concentrations of chemically available calcium, copper and zinc than the sirloin. In Nigeria, termites are usually roasted and eaten as food, mostly during the rainy season.
Besides the use of termites as therapeutic resource for the treatment of asthma, hoarseness and sinusitis, wounds, malnutrition, nutrient deficiency and sickness of pregnant women, researchers have explored the use of insect natural products as potential source for alternative medicines.
Indian researchers from Department of Biological Sciences, Presidency University, Kolkata; Department of Zoology, Darjeeling Government College, West Bengal; and Department of Zoology, Scottish Church College, Kolkata explored developments in bioengineering natural products from insects with potential use in modern medicines as well as in utilisation of insects as models for studying essential mammalian processes such as immune responses to pathogens.
The study was published in World Science News. Crickets promotes growth of good bacteria, reduces inflammation
But the most recent clinical trial published, last week, in Scientific Reports showed that consuming crickets can help support the growth of beneficial gut bacteria and that eating crickets is not only safe at high doses but may also reduce inflammation in the body.
Crickets, like other insects, contain fibres, such as chitin, that are different from the dietary fibre found in foods like fruits and vegetables. Fibre serves as a microbial food source and some types promote the growth of beneficial bacteria, also known as probiotics.
The new University of Wisconsin-Madison, United States (U.S.), trial probed whether insect fibres may influence the bacteria found in the gastrointestinal tract. More than two billion people around the world regularly consume insects, which are also a good source of protein, vitamins, minerals and healthy fats.
Twenty participants were involved in the University of Wisconsin-Madison study, which involved two different types of breakfasts. For the first fortnight, they had either a control breakfast or one containing 25g of powdered cricket meal made into muffins and shakes.
Each volunteer then reverted back to a normal diet for a two week ‘washout period’ in the middle of the study. They then spent the last two weeks eating the breakfast they were not given in the first fortnight – either crickets or a control. Blood samples were collected from participants at the start, during and end of the study, published in Scientific Reports.
Meanwhile, the US researchers wanted to assess levels of blood glucose and enzymes, and for levels of TNF-alpha – a protein associated with inflammation.
And faecal samples were taken at the same time points to search for inflammatory chemicals in the gut and the make-up of the microbiota. Anyone would pick a burger over a plateful of dried crickets. But according to a study in 2016, you should think twice before placing your order.
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