Insects as food: why bug protein will be part of our daily diet

Close up of person holding plate of crickets

Tianna Nadalin

Posted June 01, 2022

Wondering what all the buzz is about insect protein? From worms to witchety grubs, insects are proving to be a sustainable and tasty food of the future. 

It’s 4pm and Vue de Monde executive chef Hugh Allen is sifting through containers of green ants. He’s prepping the arthropods ahead the evening’s dinner service, where they are used as the garnish on a cleverly-designed dish of cured kangaroo and native potato that features as part of the sky-high fine diner’s degustation menu.

“The ants we use are from north Queensland,” he explains. “They have a very green bum with a super delicious lemongrassy citrusy flavour. We literally just pick through them, clean them and serve them raw.” 

Hugh is one of a new breed of culinary innovators putting native insects and other edible arthropods onto the fine dining menu, joining hospitality heavyweights the likes of Ben Shewry, whose black ant lamingtons nearly broke the internet when he first plated them up at the world-renowned Attica. 

“The first time I ever saw ants used in cooking was when I was working in Copenhagen at a restaurant called Noma and, ever since then, I’ve used them off and on for both savoury and sweet dishes,” Hugh says. “They’re one of my favourite ingredients to have started using in the last couple of years.”


Close up of 'Rooshi' dish of cured kangaroo with green ants at Vue de Monde restaurant

The cured kangaroo topped with green ants at Vue de Monde. Photo: Supplied.

The rise of insect protein

Despite the buzz, eating insects is hardly a new concept. They have been a dietary staple in some cultures for centuries, owing to their excellent nutrition profile, widespread availability, and the ease with which they can be grown and cultivated. 

“Over 80 per cent of the world’s countries eat insects as part of their everyday diet,” says entomologist and food scientist Skye Blackburn. “In Thailand, the government even funds more than 20,000 cricket farms, which are generally in local communities that are really connected to their food source. “In the western world, we’re a little behind the eight ball.”

But, these days, we’re starting to catch up.

Environmental concerns coupled with a growing global population, is seeing a swarm of interest in alternative proteins. Consumers are seeking out nutrition sources that are more sustainable, ethical, and environmentally friendly. And insects could be the answer.

Are insects a sustainable food source?

According to the United Nations, the Earth’s population will swell to nine billion by 2050. In order to feed this growing population, food production in the developing world will need to double. But with urban sprawl eating into agricultural land, new ways to farm smarter not harder are being developed. 

Cue the crickets. Literally.

“Cricket farms create 1/100th of the amount of greenhouse gases [compared to beef] and use very little water,” says Skye Blackburn, who started Australia's first insect protein farm, Edible Bug Shop, in 2007.

“If you replaced one meat-based meal a week, you’d save 100,000 litres of drinking water a year.”

When it comes to cricket farming, Blackburn – who has pioneered the edible insect industry in Australia – says the idea of circular agriculture, an approach that at the same time maximises production and value while minimising emissions, resource use, waste and pollution, makes it an attractive option when it comes to reducing impact.

“We take fruit and vegetable waste from food production processing and circle it back into our food system as feed for our insects, which saves organic waste from ending up in landfill.”


Chocolate truffles topped with assorted bugs

Milk chocolate truffle with mealworms, anyone? Photo: Getty.

Is eating crickets good for you?

By weight, crickets are a much more efficient source of protein and nutrition than their more common meat-based counterparts. 

Per 100 grams, crickets contain about 65 grams of protein, while red meat contains around half of that, and chicken around 27 grams. 

“One tablespoon of cricket protein powder contains 13 grams of digestible protein as well as 40 per cent of the recommended daily intake (RDI) of calcium and iron, 100 per cent of your daily B12, zinc magnesium, manganese and phosphorous needs and half your omega 3s,” Blackburn says. 

“It also has all of these amazing micronutrients, is really low in carbohydrates and is a source of probiotic fibre, which is really good for gut health.”

Despite the benefits, Blackburn says some people are still hesitant to try bugs. 

“When we eat a steak, we don’t call it ‘cow’ and it doesn’t look like a cow anymore,” Skye says. “It’s the same with insects. Once people realise that when we talk about eating insect proteins, we’re not talking about eating them whole; there are no legs, wings or antennae. Once people get over that initial barrier, it’s not that scary to be eating insects.”

Are insects the future of food?

These days, food manufacturers and retailers are starting to cotton on to the enormous potential insects pose to the future of food. Recent studies predict the edible insect industry will be worth more than $710 billion (USD) by 2026 and, if current trends are anything to go by, it seems the edible bugs industry has already got ants in its pants. 

Ready-to-eat insect-based products are now lining supermarket shelves (cricket protein chips, anyone?), you can find green-ant gin at your local liquor retailers, and larger companies are starting to include insects in their research and development. 

“When we first started doing this nobody had heard about insect-based protein before,” Blackburn says. “So we were making more novel products – like ant lollipops and milk chocolate with mealworms – to get people thinking about them as food.” 

Fast forward to now and whether you're after straight up roasted crickets, cricket corn chips or high-protein almond granola with cricket powder - to name just some of the innovative products in the ready-to-eat bug food range - insects are filling a gap for healthy, nutrient-dense snacks that utilise local, sustainable food sources. There's even a green ant gin, if you feel like bugging your next G&T. 

“Retail buyers are recognising that people are looking for these kinds of products and are starting to range them,” Skye says. “Instead of purchasing a bag of corn chips that has no nutrition, you can buy something that looks and tastes exactly the same but that has been enriched with invisible protein.”