A couple of months ago, a friend sent me an article I finally had a chance to read, which describes a double-blind, placebo-controlled crossover study that looked at the effects of eating crickets on health and the gut biome.[i]
Now don’t sit there rolling your eyes – or gagging. After all, insect parts are in most or all of the processed foods you eat. It simply can’t be helped. As long as it’s under a certain percentage – for visual appeal really – the FDA has no issue with it, as the bits are certainly not going to harm you. So bad news…or good news, depending on your point of view: you’re likely already eating bits every day.
In reality, insects are a fantastic form of food: “…insects are a good source of bioavailable animal protein including all essential amino acids, as well as B vitamins, minerals, and essential fatty acids. Insects also contain relevant levels of crude fiber, most predominately in the form of chitin…” Chitin is structurally very similar to the indigestible fiber, cellulose, that is derived from plants.
To boot, from an environmental standpoint, insects are markedly better, as they emit far few greenhouse gases, and “…require less land, water, and feed to survive and thrive than traditional livestock. The result is a significantly lower environmental impact.”
And yes – they taste pretty good too! I’ve tried cricket chips before. Delicious!
The study was done on twenty healthy adults, half of whom consumed cricket flour (in a breakfast shake) for 14 days, while the other 10 had the placebo. After a 2 week washout period, the groups were swapped. The patients in the trial had blood and stool tested multiple times.
The results: no adverse events were reported and the gut microbiome was not significantly disturbed. Five kinds of bacteria increased in the experimental groups, including Bifidobacterium animalis, which “…has been shown in clinical studies to improve gastrointestinal function, protect against diarrhea, reduce side effects of antibiotic treatment, and increase resistance to common respiratory infections.” It also fights against gut pathogens, including E. coli. A study in pigs also showed it reduces Salmonella infection. Other studies have demonstrated that it “…may be able to interact with immune cells and have an overall beneficial effect on immune system function.”
Interestingly, “…Lactobacillus reuteri and two other lactic acid producing bacteria were decreased by 3 to 4 fold relative to control…” The authors suspect that this is because of the changes in the breakfast foods consumed. That is, the participants were not eating foods that commonly contain reuteri, like yogurt. Also, because many participants took probiotics before the study, but were off their probiotics during the duration of the study, the initial levels of L.reuteri may have been higher than “normal.” Obviously, they suggest more research into this.
Other changes of note: the level of the major inflammatory cytokine, tumor necrosis factor alpha (TNF-alpha), which is highly associated with intestinal inflammation and gut disease (as well as autoimmune diseases), was lower in the cricket-eating groups. The researchers surmise that this is potentially due to improvements in gut barrier function (i.e. healing of leaky gut), which may prevent bacterial toxins from getting into the blood stream and stimulating an inflammatory response from the immune system. The increase in Bifidobacterium from the prebiotic cricket flour may also be a factor here, as supplementation with this species “…has been shown to modulate improvements in barrier function.” The fact that they saw such a significant improvement in TNF levels, in as short a time as 2 weeks, is really great news: “…the influence of diet on production of inflammatory cytokines like TNF-alpha has been linked with a number of important health endpoints including cancer incidence, cardiovascular disease and major depression.”
This was the first study of its kind (i.e. looking at the effects of eating crickets on health and the microbiome), and certainly, more research is needed. On the other hand, as the article points out, “…2 billion people spread across 80% of the world’s population in 130 countries” currently eat insects and I’d be willing to bet, there is less inflammatory disease in those places where they are regularly consumed.
Well, call me crazy but…I may soon be adding a bit of cricket flour to my breakfasts!
[i] Stull, VJ, et. al. Impact of edible cricket consumption on gut microbiota in healthy adults, a double-blind, randomized crossover trial. Scientific Reports. 2018. 8:10762. DOI:10.1038/s41598-018-29032-2