A recent study suggests that eating crickets may be beneficial to our well-being and sustainable farming.
More researchers are becoming more interested in insects of late. Many are asking whether we might be enriching our diets with a handful of ants, or crickets.
According to an earlier study, insects are no harder to digest than any other foods in our daily diets, and people that consume them report that they are actually quite tasty, too.
Recently, Valerie Stull, a researcher from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, decided to place her attention on the effects eating crickets would have on a person’s health, and whether they would be a helpful addition to someone’s diet.
Stull was inspired to look into the benefits of incorporating insects into the diet after her own primer to this source of nutrients.
“I was on a trip with my parents in Central America and we were served fried ants,” she recounts. “I remember being so grossed out initially, but when I put the ant in my mouth, I was really surprised because it tasted like food — and it was good!” she adds.
Stull and colleagues recently conducted a pilot clinical trial examining the impact of eating crickets on the human gut microbiota. The scientists reported their results in a paper published in Scientific Reports.
Crickets may boost good bacteria
Stull and colleagues recruited 20 healthy participants aged 18–48 for the trial. Some of them ate a regular breakfast (the control breakfast) for two weeks, while the others ate a breakfast containing muffins or shakes made with 25 grams of powdered crickets.
For an extra 2 weeks, all the participants reverted to regular, cricket-free diets. This was the “washout period.” Finally, over 2 more weeks, those who had at first eaten control breakfasts consumed cricket-based breakfasts, and vice versa.
The scientists collected biological samples of blood and feces as well as information about the gastrointestinal health of the participants at three points all through the trial: at the very beginning, after the first 2-week intervention, and at the very end of the study, after the final 2-week intervention.
Stull and the research team examined the samples, testing for important biomarkers such as blood sugars, markers representing liver health, signs of inflammation, and changes in the gut microbiota.
They discovered no noteworthy changes to the health of the participants’ gastrointestinal health, and no changes to bacterial gut populations.
There was no evidence of changes to the participants’ levels of gut inflammation either, and the volunteers reported no side effects due to their respective diets.
However, the scientists did observe two outstanding changes following the mixing of crickets into the participants’ diets.
First, they saw that levels of a metabolic enzyme tied to better gut health had increased to some extent. Then, they noticed that levels a blood protein linked to inflammation — TNF-alpha — had decreased.
Higher levels of TNF-alpha, the researchers add, are often seen in depression and cancer.
Also, Stull and colleagues witnessed a certain upsurge in the populations of good gut bacteria, such as Bifidobacterium animalis.
“There is a lot of interest right in edible insects, and it’s gaining traction in Europe and in the [United States] as a sustainable, environmentally friendly protein source compared to traditional livestock.”
The researchers explain that turning to insects as a source of protein would not only be better for the environment, but also better for humans, as it would be a more nutritious alternative to meat.
Crickets and other insects are also a good source of fiber, though the type of fiber they contain such as chitin, is different from what we get from some fruits or vegetables, the researchers noted.
Fibers are important in sustaining the growth of probiotics, or healthful gut bacteria, and the fiber provided by insects could therefore sustain gut health.
“This study is important because insects represent a novel component in Western diets and their health effects in human populations haven’t really been studied,” says study co-author Tiffany Weir.
“With what we now know about the gut microbiota and its relationship to human health, it’s important to establish how a novel food might affect gut microbial populations. We found that cricket consumption may actually offer benefits beyond nutrition.”
The researchers note, however, that their trial was a small one, and that larger studies with more participants should seek to replicate their results.