ROME -- The latest weapon in the U.N.'s fight against hunger, global warming and pollution might be flying by you right now.
Edible insects are being promoted as a low-fat, high-protein food for people, pets and livestock. According to the U.N., they come with appetizing side benefits: Reducing greenhouse gas emissions and livestock pollution, creating jobs in developing countries and feeding the millions of hungry people in the world.
Some edible insect information in bite-sized form:
WHO EATS INSECTS NOW?
Two billion people do, largely in Asia, Africa and Latin America, the Rome-based U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization said Monday as it issued a report exploring edible insect potential.
Some insects may already be in your food (and this is no fly-in-my-soup joke.) Demand for natural food coloring as opposed to artificial dyes is increasing, the agency's experts say. A red coloring produced from the cochineal, a scaled insect often exported from Peru, already puts the hue in a trendy Italian aperitif and an internationally popular brand of strawberry yogurt. Many pharmaceutical companies also use colorings from insects in their pills.
PACKED WITH PROTEIN, FULL OF FIBER
Scientists who have studied the nutritional value of edible insects have found that red ants, small grasshoppers and some water beetles pack (gram-per-gram or ounce-per-ounce) enough protein to rank with lean ground beef while having less fat per gram.
Bored with bran as a source of fiber in your diet? Edible insects can oblige, and they also contain useful minerals such as iron, magnesium, phosphorous, selenium and zinc.
WHICH TO CHOOSE?
Beetles and caterpillars are the most common meals among the more than 1,900 edible insect species that people eat. Other popular insect foods are bees, wasps, ants, grasshoppers, locusts and crickets. Less popular are termites and flies, according to U.N. data.
Insects on average can convert 2 kilograms (4.4 pounds) of feed into 1 kilogram (2.2 pounds) of edible meat. In comparison, cattle require 8 kilograms (17.6 pounds) of feed to produce a kilogram of meat. Most insects raised for food are likely to produce fewer environmentally harmful greenhouse gases than livestock, the U.N. agency says.
DON'T SWAT THE INCOME
Edible insects are a money-maker. In Africa, four big water bottles filled with grasshoppers can fetch a gatherer 15 euros ($20). Some caterpillars in southern Africa and weaver ant eggs in Southeast Asia are considered delicacies and command high prices.
Insect-farms tend to be small, serving niche markets like fish bait businesses. But since insects thrive across a wide range of locations -- from deserts to mountains -- and are highly adaptable, experts see big potential for the insect farming industry, especially those farming insects for animal feed. Most edible insects are now gathered in forests.
LET A BUG DO YOUR RECYLING
A 3 million euro ($4 million) European Union-funded research project is studying the common housefly to see if a lot of flies can help recycle animal waste by essentially eating it while helping to produce feed for animals such as chickens. Right now farmers can only use so much manure as fertilizer and many often pay handsome sums for someone to cart away animal waste and burn it.
A South African fly factory that rears the insects en masse to transform blood, guts, manure and discarded food into animal feed has won a $100,000 U.N.-backed innovation prize.