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Your Early Ancestors Ate Insects, And So Can You

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Fried Instinct Food in Hand

For most people, the thought of eating bugs is as vomit-inducing as thoughts get, but a new study shows that insects were the food choice for our earliest ancestors and can still be eaten and digested by almost all existing primates, including humans.

The prevailing wisdom for the longest time has been that mammals didn’t produce an enzyme that could break down the exoskeletons of insects and, as a result, couldn’t effectively digest the little critters, but scientists at Rutgers University and Kent State University have proven that isn’t necessarily true.

Published in Molecular Biology and Evolution and led by Mareike Janiak, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Anthropology, the study examined 34 primate in search for genomes for CHIA, a gene necessary to break down the hard outer covering of insects called chitin . The researchers found that while most living primates have only one copy of the CHIA gene, our early primates ancestors had a minimum of three working copies, leading them to conclude that insects were an important source of food for early humans.

Primates like the tarsier, which eats more insects than any other primates and only exists on islands in Southeast Asia, have five copies of the gene because it was duplicated specifically in this lineage. It’s yet another case of use it or lose it, with Janiak pointing out:

“As some primates evolved to be larger and more active during the day than at night, their diets shifted a bit to other foods like fruits and leaves. Insects became less important and their digestive enzymes changed, but most living primates still have at least one working CHIA gene.”

There is still debate in the scientific community on how effectively humans can digest an insect’s exoskeleton, though cooking makes them much easier to chew and digest. Some studies have found that human stomach enzymes can digest the harder-shell outer covering of the insect, while other researchers say they cannot find any supporting evidence.

Fried Grasshopper Salad

Fried Grasshopper Salad

This might be because of the human subjects used in most studies on the matter, which Janiak noted have exclusively involved Western culture participants and not people from various cultures that actually eat insects regularly. In fact, according to the United Nations, insects make up part of the traditional diet of 2 billion people around the world, and 1,900 species are considered both edible and a highly nutritious food source, boasting healthy fats, protein, fiber, vitamins and essential minerals.

While the consumption of insects is common in Asia, Africa and other parts of the world, most Western consumers aren’t keen on eating whole, freeze-dried, fried or even processed insects, with a Dutch study in 2017 finding a presumption that cattle who had eaten insects could have meat that’s tougher to prepare, not as safe and not as flavorful.

We don’t expect this study to change the minds of squeamish eaters, but the fact that insects are loaded with nutrients, are available in great numbers, and don’t need many resources to produce (e.g. they have a far smaller environmental footprint than beef or chicken) may make them be best food source to accommodate the world’s rapidly growing population, which is expected to increase by 2 billion people over the next 30 years.

Despite their numerous nutritional advantages, insects have a tough road to becoming a culturally acceptable food choice, especially in the West. Whether ground into an unrecognizable powder or served whole, there is just something about them that many people can’t find palatable, no matter how much scientists insist that they are a healthy food choice.

Oh, what will we eat when the world actually does come to an end? What indeed…

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Diet & Health

Science Has Found The Best Way To Wash Pesticides Off Apples

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Apple on tree

Polishing an apple with your shirt might get rid of some dust and dirt, but removing the pesticides will require a little more work.

New research has found that washing apples with baking soda, the common yet miraculous household product, could be all you need to eliminate most of the residues on the surface of apples and other fruits.

Pesticides have long been used to increase crop yield, but rising concerns over their adverse effect on human health has many people talking. While the exact effects depend on the type of pesticides and the amount eaten, the World Health Organization says that certain pesticides could harm the developing nervous systems of fetuses and children.

A growing number of people have opted for organic food as way of avoiding the chemicals, but organic food usually command a price premium and there is no guarantee that pesticides were used. In fact, the organic, naturally-occurring pesticides that some organic farms use aren’t necessarily safer.

Washing has been and remains the standard practice used by both consumers and the food industry to remove pesticides, but some of the plant-protecting compounds that get absorbed by the skin of fruits and vegetables might be more resilient to current cleaning methods. To find the best method, Lili He, Assistant Professor at the ‎University of Massachusetts Amherst, and colleagues conducted a study in which they applied two common pesticides — the fungicide thiabendazole, which past research has shown can penetrate apple peels, and the insecticide phosmet — to organic Gala apples and then washed apples with three different liquids: tap water, a 1 percent baking soda/water solution, and a U.S.-EPA-approved commercial bleach solution often used on produce.

The baking soda solution proved the most effective at removing pesticides, eliminating 80 percent of the thiabendazole and 96 percent of the phosmet, respectively, after 12 and 15 minutes of the fruits being soaked. Plain tap water and the bleach solution were far less effective.

The different percentages are likely due to thiabendezole’s greater absorption into the apple. Mapping images showed that thiabendazole had penetrated up to 80 micrometers deep into the apples, while phosmet was detected at a depth of only 20 micrometers.

So, there you have it, if washing is your preferred method of removing pesticides off your fruits and vegetables, using a baking soda solution is the way to go. If all other options are to be considered, then peeling your produce is probably your best bet.

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Diet & Health

You Binge Eat Because You’re Sleep-Deprived

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Woman caught eating food

There have been many studies correlating sleep deprivation with a wide range of health risks, including decrease in alertness and increased risk of heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure. But what about a possible link with food cravings?

Researchers have long known that lack of sleep is associated with binge eating or just plain eating uncontrollably whenever and wherever, but a new study published in online journal Sleep suggests that the same chemical mechanism behind the munchies might be why sleep-deprived people not only feel hungrier, but also become buckle in the face of a big chocolate bar.

The study involved 14 volunteers aged 18 to 30, all of whom were first given four nights of either normal (8.5 hours) or interrupted sleep (4.5 hours) and then two meals and unrestricted access to all kind of snacks — both healthy (e.g., fruit and yogurt) and less-healthy options (e.g., chips and cake).

When the researchers monitored their endocannabinoid (eCB) levels, they found that those participants who had been sleep-deprived reported feeling hungrier and tended to eat the less-healthy snacks.

Moreover, they eat nearly double the fat and protein of the well-rested participants and exhibited an exaggerated cycle in their endocannabinoid levels, with an especially high level in the afternoon — around the same time they reported feeling the hungriest.

Endocannabinoids are chemicals that our bodies naturally create to play a part in such physiological processes as appetite, pain-sensation, mood, and memory. They also to activate the same receptors that get people high from consuming marijuana, explaining the temptation for food stemming from sleep deprivation.

Have you ever felt so tired as to almost feel high? Well, this might be the reason…

Scientists hope these findings will lead to further scientific discoveries on food cravings that would aid in the treatment and control of binge eating.

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Food Research

Global Warming Is Making Rice Less Nutritious

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White rice grain

As one of the primary food staples for millions, if not billions, of people around the world, the impact of rice on human civilization and population growth cannot be understated. However, rising carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere is undermining its nutritional value.

The starchy grain is nutritiously unassuming, but it is a good source of magnesium, phosphorus, manganese, selenium, iron, folic acid, thiamine, niacin, Vitamin B and, in the case of brown rice, fiber.

An international research team that analyzed rice samples from field experiments started by a University of Tokyo professor found that increased CO2 in the atmosphere will reduce the nutritional value of rice. Specifically, iron, zinc, protein, and vitamins B1, B2, B5, and B9 were reduced in rice that were grown under higher carbon dioxide concentrations (568 to 590 parts per million) expected to prevail in the second half of the century.

Published in Science Advances, the results challenge a common argument floated among many climate change deniers that rising CO2 concentrations are a net positive for global vegetation, including crops, and should be of serious consideration for populations that depend heavily on rice for sustenance.

Professor Kazuhiko Kobayashi of the University of Tokyo, co-author of the study and an expert in effects of air pollution on agriculture, said he started using the technique in 1998, stated:

“Rice is not just a major source of calories, but also proteins and vitamins for many people in developing countries and for poorer communities within developed countries.”

Rice Field - Vietnam

The researchers grew the rice at research sites in China and Japan using an open-field method that included 17-meter-wide (56-foot-wide) plastic pipe octagons elevated about 30 centimeters (1 foot) above the tops of plants within standard rice fields.

A network of sensors and monitors measured wind speed and direction to determine how much carbon dioxide is released out of the pipes, allowing the concentration of the gas to be raised to desired experimental level.

The technique is known as Free-Air Carbon dioxide Enrichment (FACE). Kobayashi said he started using the technique in 1998, adding:

“We knew that plants raised in a plastic or glass house do not grow the same as plants in normal, open field conditions. This technique allows us to test the effects of higher carbon dioxide concentrations on plants growing in the same conditions that farmers really will grow them some decades later in this century.”

Local wildlife sometimes poses additional challenge to the research. At their fist field site, Kobayashi’s team had to keep all of the pipes and tubes above the ground because raccoons kept chewing through everything, jeopardized the experiment.

Farmed rice in hand

A total of 18 different varieties of rice were analysed for protein, iron, and zinc levels. Nine varieties of rice grown in China were used for thiamine (B1), riboflavin (B2), pantothenic acid (B5), and folate (B9).

Populations in countries with both the highest rice consumption and lowest gross domestic product may be the ones to experience the most malnutrition from the decline in the nutritional value of low-cost staple foods like rice.

For instance, approximately six hundred million people primarily in Bangladesh, Cambodia, Indonesia, Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Myanmar, Vietnam, and Madagascar get at least 50 percent of their daily energy and/or protein directly from rice. This was also the case in Japan during the 1960s, but the average Japanese today receives only about 20 percent of their daily dietary energy from rice.

Fortunately, not all varieties of rice responded in the same way. Future research may examine the possibility of finding varieties of rice that can remain nutritious despite atmospheric changes.

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