A short history of insect consumption

A short history of insect consumption

Insect consumption is not just a fad of today, but has been around since prehistoric times and has accompanied humanity throughout history. Evidence of insect consumption by prehistoric man is provided by many highly sophisticated scientific methods. Further references to entomophagy are found in biblical texts.

Today, more than 2 billion people consume insects, mostly in Africa, Asia and Latin America. In Europe and the USA, insect consumption is strongly suppressed by cultural and dietary practices (1).


A glimpse into the distant past

Man has been an omnivore since early evolution, and a large part of his diet consisted of insects. Concrete evidence of the dietary composition of human history can be obtained, for example, from stable carbon isotopes in tooth enamel. A significant enrichment in the 13C isotope has been revealed in the bones and tooth enamel of Australopithecines. This leads us to the conclusion that the diet of these people consisted mainly of herbivorous animals, including insects (2). Another piece of evidence is the discovery of fossilised excreta around prehistoric hearths in Mexico, which contained beetle larvae and ants (3). Prehistoric people used a variety of tools to obtain insects. This is evidenced by the findings in the Sterkfontein Valley. Tools for collecting termites, made from the bones of larger animals, have been found there (4).


Food habits have always been linked to culture and religion. Insect eating is found in Christian, Jewish and Muslim biblical texts. One example is the reference in Leviticus to the locust as food, probably referring to the desert locust Schistocerca gregaria.


Aristotle's appetite

In the next great phase of human history, antiquity, insects were also a common part of the diet. The first mention of entomophagy in Europe comes from Greece, when Aristotle (384-322 BC), in his Historia Animalium, describes the stage at which the cicada is most palatable, and that adult females taste best after fertilisation because they are full of eggs. References to entomophagy are found across centuries and continents. Diodorus of Sicily, in the 2nd century BC, called the inhabitants of Ethiopia Acridophagi, or "those who eat locusts".


The eminent Chinese physician and pharmacologist Li Shichen wrote the Compendium of Materia Medica, a comprehensive account of Chinese medicine practices during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). It includes a comprehensive list of foods, including a large number of insects, for which he also mentions medicinal properties.

German troops in Italy repeatedly and with relish consumed fried silkworm larvae. This fact is described by the Italian naturalist Ulysse Aldovandi in his treatise De Animalibus Insectis Libri Septem (1602).


Even in the Czech Republic, entomophagy was not uncommon. This is evidenced by Czech cookbooks from 1920 and 1937, where one can find recipes for preparing food from insects, such as a recipe for chroustova soup (5).

Across history, we find countless similar references and publications, proving that entomophagy is deeply rooted in humans. We have become accustomed to eating frogs, snakes, lizards, molluscs and oysters; the only thing that prevents us from eating insects is prejudice and different cultural practices.


The current situation in the world

Currently, at least 108 countries have a tradition of eating edible insects. The number of local edible insects consumed ranges from one (e.g. France) to 450 (e.g. Mexico) (6).


Large numbers of insects are observed throughout the African continent and are becoming an important source of livelihood. The increase in consumption is usually present during the rainy season, when the availability of game and fish is problematic (7).


The average household in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, consumes 300 g of caterpillars per week. It is estimated that 96 tonnes of caterpillars are consumed annually in this city. Among other species, the consumption of the martin caterpillar Gonimbrasia belina dominates (8). The indigenous people of Gbaya consume 96 different species of edible insects. Insect consumption provides 15% of their total daily protein intake (9).


Current entomophagy in many Asian countries is altered as a result of population migration. In northeastern Thailand, for example, insects have long been a staple of the diet, and due to labour migration to tourist areas in the south, insect consumption has spread throughout the country (10).


In Southeast Asia, about 150-200 species of insects are consumed. A popular delicacy in these areas is the so-called sago worm (Rhynchophorus ferrugineus), which parasitizes the sago tree (Metroxylon sagu). Over 50 species of insects are consumed in South Asia (India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka), 39 species in Papua New Guinea and other Pacific islands (11).


A large number of insects are consumed in Mexico, with around 450 edible species (7). Indigenous peoples have a rich knowledge of the plant and animal species that make up their traditional diet, including the life cycle of different insect species. They know when to collect which insects very well, due to their association with various natural phenomena, such as plant life cycles, moon cycles, the rainy season and the occurrence of thunder. It is well known, for example, that escamoles (larvae of ants of the genus Liometopum) are ready for harvest when the Barkleyanthus (Senecio salignus) plant is flowering (12).


What about Europe?

Interest in eating insects continues to grow worldwide. A favourite delicacy are mealworm larvae and, of course, edible crickets. Edible insects undeniably offer benefits both nutritionally and environmentally. That is why European legislation is also undergoing major changes at this time.


Until 31 December 2017, the consumption of insects for human consumption was not regulated in the Czech Republic. However, this is now in the past and the consumption of insects is now legally regulated and permitted in Europe.



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