Insects may be slightly more commonplace on Australian menus these days (Bondi Mexican restaurant El Topo, for example, offers roasted crickets as a snack, which Public in Brisbane has worms and ants on the menu), but even if you’re happy chowing down on deep-fried tarantulas, you may not be happy about this. A new report suggests that whether we want to or not, we could be unknowingly consuming thousands of insects (or insect bits) in our meals. The report comes from Terro, a US-based pest control company that shows consuming around thousands of pieces of insect matter each year is not only probable, but potentially good for you. Some of the most common foods in our diet may contain traces of insects, or even whole insects – from aphids or thripids to beetles and worms.
According to the FDA, America’s primary food regulatory body, consuming bugs is a normal part of life – it comes part and parcel with the nature of food production, so all consumers can do is understand the guidelines around safe insect consumption. Under US laws, frozen berries can contain around two insects per 100 grams, while frozen Brussels sprouts can harbour around 30. Ground cinnamon can contain up to 800 insect fragments before it’s deemed unsafe for human consumption. Regular coffee drinkers can technically expect to consume up to 140,000 insect fragments per year, and chocolate lovers may be chowing down on an extra 6000 pieces of bug matter. Yummy.
Turning closer to home, the situation doesn’t appear to be drastically different. Australian food scientist, entomologist and founder of Edible Bug Shop Skye Blackburn tells SBS Food that the average Australian diet includes around quarter of a kilo of insects each year. "An organic, vegan or vegetarian diet can be a little higher," she says.
Where are these bug bits finding their way into our food? "Flour, pasta, chocolate, fruit juice - things that are plant based and ground up" are some of the most likely places, Blackburn says.
However, unlike the US, food standards in Australia don’t specially allow for insects and insect matter in packaged foods. “The national Food Standards Code does not include specific requirements about limits of insects in food but it does require that all food sold in Australia is safe and suitable,” a NSW Food Authority spokesperson tells SBS.
Blackburn explains that the Food Authority uses the FDA codes as a guideline, so effectively, the standards in Australia are similar to those in the US.
Before you swear off chocolate and coffee forever, remember: eating bugs isn’t in itself bad for you. In fact, the Terro report points out that bugs are a good source of protein, calcium, and potassium. There’s a reason why in many countries around the world, insects are a popular snack or regular source of protein, and why more people in Australia are choosing to eat or cook with them.
Many edible insects serve as a good source of energy, protein and micronutrients. The Terro report pointed out that 100 grams of cricket contains 20.5 grams of protein, 40.7 grams of calcium, 347 grams of potassium and only 6.8 grams of fat, while a similar weight of Atlantic salmon contains 19.8 grams of protein, 12 grams of calcium, 6.3 grams of fat and 490 grams of potassium. Let’s not do a price comparison between Atlantic salmon and crickets.
Blackburn says when the Edible Bug Shop first launched, a lot of sales were for novelty uses - themed parties, for example - but in the past five years there's been a shift towards customers with a health and sustainability focus.
As food security becomes more of a concern, we might find bugs feature in our diets more often and more knowingly. Until then, just think of any extra bits you might be consuming as extra protein.
Lead image: Getty Images / andersduus