Thankschitin

Thankschitin

While preparing the Thanksgiving feast next week, why not slip in a little insecty goodness? (After all, it could be argued that turkeys are nothing more than overgrown bugs, anyway.)

Yes, the environmental benefits of insects as a cheap and plentiful food source has crawled into the public sphere – City Market even has cricket chips on its shelves. But now researchers have found that eating insects is not just good for the planet, but good for humans.

Tiffany Weir, an associate professor in CSU’s Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition, and Valerie Stull, a doctoral graduate from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, recently teamed up to study what effects consuming bugs had on the microflora in the gut. The pair designed a blind study, which involved getting willing subjects to eat cricket powder that had been incorporated into milkshakes and pumpkin muffins. Students at CSU helped design and test the recipes, which – among other things – had to overcome the distinct flavor and texture of the cricket powder, described as “earthy” and “gritty.”

Fortunately, most of the subjects were college kids, accustomed to dorm food and late-night stops at the Circle K, so taste did not rank high on the list.

“People were surprisingly willing,” Weir said. “Some were even really excited.”

During the six-week study, participants were initially placed in one of two groups. The first group was given muffins and milkshakes with the cricket powder, and the second “control group” was given plain muffins and milkshakes. For two weeks, participants ate the meals in place of their normal breakfasts. After giving everyone two weeks off, the team switched the control and cricket groups and repeated the process.

“For the most part we were looking at young, healthy individuals. We didn’t know if we would see any benefits because the population is generally low risk,” Weir said.

However, low and behold, they did see two major improvements in the guts of subjects: an increase in a healthy bacterium and a decrease in inflammatory markers. The elevated bacterium, bifidobacterium, is known for colonizing the gut of infants and helps shape humans’ immune systems. While everyone maintains populations throughout their lives, the number tends to drop over time.

The inflammatory marker – TNF-alpha – is associated with chronic diseases like Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

One possible reason for these changes, researchers hypothesize, is that the type of fiber found in insects – called “chitin” – is only found in two others places, mushrooms and the shells of seafood, which people don’t tend to eat a lot of. Of course, more study will be needed to determine if chitin is driving the changes.

Chitin pumpkin pie, anyone?