- Many edible insects, like caterpillars and grubs, are important sources of protein and should be considered an alternative in efforts to increase food security in Central African countries, nutritionists said today. While this is common knowledge to many of the peoples of the central African region, the importance of edible insects is only now rediscovered by nutritionists.
According to a study published by the UN's food and agricultural agency FAO today, edible insects must be reconsidered an important source of protein in Central Africa. These widely eaten insects are not only nutritious, but also potentially income generating and a manner of biological pest control.
Caterpillars are already an important food intake for many in Central Africa, according the FAO study. About 85 percent of participants in a survey in the Central African Republic consume caterpillars; 70 percent in Congo Kinshasa (DRC) and 91 percent in Botswana. "Edible insects from forests are an important source of protein, and unlike those from agricultural land, they are free of pesticides," said Paul Vantomme, an FAO forestry expert.
For every 100 grams of dried caterpillars, there are about 53 grams of protein, about 15 percent of fat and about 17 percent of carbohydrates. Their energy value amounts to around 430 kilocalories per 100 grams. The insects are also believed to have a higher proportion of protein and fat than beef and fish with a high energy value.
Depending on the species, caterpillars are rich in important minerals such as potassium, calcium, magnesium, zinc, phosphorus and iron, as well as various vitamins, the FAO study revealed. Research shows that 100 grams of insects provide more than 100 percent of the daily requirements of the respective minerals and vitamins.
- Due to their high nutritional value, in some regions, flour made from caterpillars is mixed to prepare pulp given to children to counter malnutrition, said Mr Vantomme. "Contrary to what many may think, caterpillars are not considered an emergency food, but are an integral part of the diet in many regions according to seasonal availability. They are consumed as a delicacy," he added.
The collection of edible insects is also a good source of income, especially for women, as they require little capital input if gathered by hand. Insects are widely offered in local village markets, while some of the preferred species - such as the Sapelli caterpillars - reach urban markets and restaurants.
Transborder trade in edible insects is significant not only within Central African countries, but also with Sudan and Nigeria. On a smaller scale, they are even exported to France and Belgium, two countries that according to the study import about 5 tonnes and 3 tonnes respectively of a dried caterpillar species annually from Congo Kinshasa. The annual export to Belgium is valued at US$ 41,500.
Many caterpillar species nourish on fresh leaves. Although trees usually respond by producing a second growth of leaves, after several attacks, trees might loose vitality, according to FAO. "Harvesting caterpillars thus contributes to maintaining the natural reproduction of trees and serves as a biological pest control," the UN agency said.
According to Mr Vantomme, Central Africa's edible insects need to be rediscovered by Western scientists and food security researchers. "The nutritional and economic value of edible insects is often neglected and we should further encourage their collection and commercialisation, given the benefits to the environment and human health," Mr Vantomme said.
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