Eating Ants Provides Antioxidants, Could Prevent Cancer

hormigas culonas—literally "big-butt ants"—make popular cuisine in colombia

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

A town in the Colombian Andes attributes its longevity to a crunchy diet, BBC Travel reported. Every year, residents of Barichara harvest ample-bottomed queen ants from ant nests and add them to their cuisine. Americans have not yet embraced eating bugs.

Queen ant on leaf
Although the practice of eating insects is commonplace worldwide, most Americans haven’t adopted it for their own diets. Photo by Klimek Pavol / Shutterstock

According to BBC Travel, a species of ant called the Hormigas culonas—or “big-butt ant”—fetches prices as high as 300,000 Colombian pesos per kilogram, or approximately $83 USD. Part of the reason ants are in such high demand is due to their nutritional value, a recently studied and similar species shows.

“As well as being an excellent source of protein, the Atta laevigata species, also known as the South American leaf-cutter ant, is a rich source of unsaturated fatty acids, which prevent high cholesterol,” the article said. “Other research published in the journal Frontiers in Nutrition has revealed that ants contain high levels of antioxidants and that regular consumption of them could help prevent cancer.”

The idea of dining on insects—also known as entomophagy—makes most Americans blanch, but it’s a surprisingly common practice worldwide.

The Ick Factor

“Insects really are a great form of nutrition; they’re often packed with fat, protein, and lots of vitamins and minerals,” said Dr. Alyssa Crittenden, Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “Mealworms and grasshoppers, for instance, have roughly the same amount of protein and vitamins per gram as fish and lean ground beef. While not mainstream, yet, many Americans are starting to see the appeal.”

Cookbooks for dining on insects are plentiful, as well. The practice of entomophagy continues to grow around the world, and Barichara is just one example. However, six-legged cuisine hasn’t broken through to every table in North America yet. Part of that is due to what Dr. Crittenden called “the ick factor.”

“Despite sleek and modern packaging, many of us simply don’t want to eat locusts or beetles, notwithstanding their nutritional value,” she said. “But insects abound, which might mean that the 21st century will see more insects consumed than ever before. The BBC claims that there are about 40 tons of bugs for every person on the planet, and we now know that our relationship with eating bugs and their products has a long evolutionary history.”

Who Holds Their Hair Back?

In a manner of speaking, Dr. Crittenden said, we’re already halfway to eating bugs, because we already eat things that come from them—in other words, bug byproducts. One of them is honey.

“We probably don’t skip a beat when adding the sweetener to our tea,” she said. “What we don’t usually think about, however, is the fact that a spoonful of honey is actually a spoonful of regurgitated nectar from worker bees.

“‘Regurgitated nectar’ is a polite way of saying ‘bee vomit.'”

Dr. Crittenden’s own research has focused on the relationship between humans and honeybees and she said the results have been astounding. Honey is one of the most energy-dense foods in nature and even just as liquid honey, it contains plenty of sucrose and glucose with trace amounts of vitamins and minerals. Adding bee larvae to it, it also provides ample protein, fat, and B vitamins.

“Many researchers are now looking to honey as a key food in human evolution,” she said. “It’s received far less attention than meat or plant products, but it’s highly likely that honey, and the products of beehives like larvae and pollen, were important foods for our ancestors.”

Americans are likely to be divided on insect cuisine for some time. Bugs may be nutritious, but they’re far from universally appetizing. For now, we’re more likely to limit our bug intake to regurgitated nectar.

Dr. Alyssa Crittenden contributed to this article. Dr. Crittenden is an Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas

Dr. Alyssa Crittenden contributed to this article. Dr. Crittenden is an Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, where she is also an Adjunct Associate Professor in the School of Medicine. She received her MA and PhD in Anthropology from the University of California, San Diego.