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Deep-fried arthropod-eating enthusiast Ly Vibol pointed at the mound of crickets in Phnom Penh as they were scooped into a plastic bag.
“A bit salty, sugary and sweet,” Mr. Vibol said with a smile, adding that he eats insects at least three times in any given week. “I love it,” he said.
From beetles to weevils, food experts are beginning to turn to the world’s smallest critters in order to solve some of their biggest hunger problems.
In Cambodia, 80 percent of the population still lives in rural areas and chronic malnourishment due to a lack of protein and essential vitamins continue to cause severe stunting among children. Forty percent of Cambodian children under the age of 5 have stunted growth, 28 percent are underweight and 11 percent are “acutely wasted” or malnourished, according to a Demographic Health Survey released by the World Health Organization in 2010.
But according to two reports published in May, insects—which are cheaper than items such as fish and meat—are ideal for ensuring a more balanced diet.
“Edible Insects: Future Prospects for Food and Feed Security,” a journal released by the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), and “Six-Legged Livestock: Edible Insect Farming, Collection and Marketing in Thailand,” a related report published by Thailand’s Khon Kaen University and the FAO, both argue that eating insects is a cost-effective way for people to get the vitamins and minerals needed to develop healthily.
“Many edible insects provide satisfactory amounts of energy and protein, meet amino acid requirements for humans, are high in monounsaturated and/or polyunsaturated fatty acids, and are rich in micronutrients,” according to the FAO’s journal “Edible Insects: Future Prospects for Food and Feed Security.”
Eating insects can also “help prevent anemia in developing countries,” the report says.
According to the report, bugs such as the cricket require 12 times less feed than cattle to generate the same amount of protein. They also require much less land in order to breed.
Yet these small creatures—which in the West are considered more as pests than appetizers—contain vitamins and minerals such as phosphorous, potassium, iron, copper, zinc, manganese, sodium, vitamin B and fiber. Healthy fats and protein are other beneficial qualities entrapped inside insects.
Still, as with all food, the nutritional value to the consumer is strictly dependent on how the food is prepared, said Giorgia Paiella, a nutrition specialist in Cambodia for the World Health Organization.
While Ms. Paiella agreed that deep-fried insects keep some of their valuable nutrients, she said the insects are covered in sugar, oil, salt and monosodium glutamate—more commonly known as MSG—which are all bad for one’s health.
“You end up having this bunch of oily and deeply fried insects that, no matter the protein or good source of vitamins and minerals, which for sure you will get, you will also get extra fat and oil,” she said.
Ms. Paiella said that many insects sold in rural areas in Cambodia may give children below the age of 5 an allergic reaction.
Ideally, she said, bugs such as crickets, termites, beetles, caterpillars, bees, wasps, flies, grasshoppers, dragonflies, silkworms and ants should be steamed rather than fried and reserved for people in their teenage years.
Teenagers, she said, “can definitely benefit.”
Yupa Haanboonsong, an associate professor of entomology at the Khon Kaen University and co-author of the institution’s report, said countries in Asia were perfectly placed to benefit from the nutritional qualities inside insects.
“It is not a new custom, but this eating habit has been forgotten in many countries,” she said. “Fortunately in Asia, there is a strong traditional culture of eating insects, so there are good opportunities to build upon these past and current traditions.”
Her favorite insect recipe is an omelet with minced pork and red ant eggs.
“High in protein, some micro-minerals and some fat acid—it’s quite delicious,” she said.
To spread the consumption of insects among rural dwellers, both the Khon Kaen University and FAO reports encouraged the production of small-scale farms.
According to the FAO’s “Edible Insects” report, “rearing insects requires minimal technical knowledge and capital investment and, since it does not require access to or ownership of land, lies within the reach of even the poorest and most vulnerable members of society. In the future, as the prices of conventional animal proteins increase, insects may well become a cheaper source of protein than conventionally produced meat and ocean-caught fish.”
Chin Kompheak has owned a small farm in his village in Meanchey district’s Prek Pra commune for a little over a year and a half.
He sells between 20 to 50 kilograms of crickets to locals every two months, earning him up to $125.
“This is a little bit of a funny business because when you say that you raise crickets, people laugh at you,” he said.
But demand for his produce is fierce.
“Even if there were ten more of me, it would still not be enough to supply the market,” he said. “Crickets are even imported from Thailand to meet the demand.”
Mr. Kompheak said he noticed that while the Thai government has encouraged its residents to consume insects, in Cambodia there is very little effort made to promote their healthy qualities.
Hean Vanhorn, deputy director of the department of agriculture, said that the Ministry of Agriculture is currently encouraging residents to grow rice and vegetables and to raise livestock, not raise insects.
“We eat rice here. Having rice with crickets—it just doesn’t go well. You can eat it for a snack, but you wouldn’t eat it at every meal,” he said.
Nina Brandstrup, the FAO’s representative in Cambodia, said she doubted that the reports alone would convince more people to eat insects.
But they can be “a basis for furthering discussion within individual countries about the feasibility and desirability of using insects for human or animal nutrition,” she said.
Still, for Mr. Vibol, eating insects will remain part of his diet for a long time to come.
“Once I find a place I really like, I will always come back,” he said.
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