Scientists have discovered that consumption of desert locust reduces risks of heart disease. This revelation comes at a time when FAO encouraged people to embrace edible insects as a mitigating factor against food insecurity.
The study that was conducted jointly by icipe, Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture, Technology and United States Department of Agriculture/Agricultural Research Service (USDA/ARS) highlights the benefits of desert locust which hitherto have been dreaded by farmers for its mass destruction.
In a paper published in PLOS ONE journal on 13 May 2015, the researchers show that the desert locust, known scientifically as Schistocerca gregaria, contains a rich composition of compounds known as sterols, which in turn have cholesterol-lowering properties, thereby reducing the risk of heart disease.
As icipe scientist, Prof. Baldwyn Torto, explains, sterols occur naturally in plants, animals and fungi. The sterols from plants are called phytosterols and those from animals are known as zoosterols. Cholesterol is the most familiar type of animal sterol. Phytosterols and cholesterol have a common target of getting absorbed in the intestines. However, phytosterols have been shown to have a competitive advantage, as they are able to block the absorption of cholesterol. Although vegetables are generally the richest sources of phytosterols, insects have the potential to supply these useful compounds to people.
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“In our study we found that, as is the case in other insects, cholesterol is the major tissue sterol in desert locusts. However, we observed that after the desert locust has fed on a vegetative diet, most of the common phytosterols are amplified and new ones are also produced in its tissues. In turn, this leads to a high phytosterol content, which suggests that eating desert locusts could reduce cholesterol levels,” explains Prof. Torto.
He adds that aside from cardiovascular protective effects, the researchers also found the desert locust to have a wealth of other nutrients, including proteins, fatty acids and minerals, which are beneficial for anti-inflammatory, anticancer and also have immune regulatory effects. As such, the desert locust is an excellent source of dietary components for both humans and animals.
The findings by icipe are redeeming for the desert locust, which is probably more reputed for its alarming threat to food security, for instance, through outbreaks in the Sahel region of Africa, which have been known to destroy land and crops, leaving hunger and poverty in their wake.
“We hope that our findings will refocus the research on the desert locust in a new emerging dimension; it’s potential as a component in food and nutritional security in Africa. Despite its negative image, the desert locust is already consumed in many regions in Africa and Asia. As icipe has proven over the years, the desert locust is extremely easy to rear, meaning that it could either be domesticated on a small-scale, or even produced through commercial ventures”, concludes Prof. Torto.
While the idea of eating a worm, grasshopper or cicada at every meal may seem strange, FAO says this has many health benefits. Insects are high in protein, fat and mineral contents. They can be eaten whole or ground into a powder or paste, and incorporated into other foods. “Insects are not harmful to eat, quite the contrary. They are nutritious, they have a lot of protein and are considered a delicacy in many countries,” said Eva Muller, the Director of FAO’s Forest Economics, Policy and Products Division.
Although they are not staples of Western cuisine, insects currently supplement the diets of some 2 billion people and have always been part of human diets in Asia, Africa and Latin America. Of the 1 million known insect species, 1900 are consumed by humans. Some of the most consumed insects include beetles, caterpillars, bees, wasps, ants, grasshoppers, locusts and crickets.
“If we think about edible insects, there’s a huge potential that has essentially not been tapped yet,” Ms. Muller said. “Most insects are just collected and there’s very little experience in insect farming, for example, which is something that could be explored in view of a growing population.”