The Next Sustainable Ingredient – Insects That Convert Waste Into Protein?

Published on: Nov 30 2020

Food waste and sustainable protein are two of the most common topics discussed in the world of food. This has been seen mainly through the growing plant-based protein movement, but other novel protein sources have potential, including insect protein.

What if we could turn waste into a sustainable protein source? This is what researchers are exploring through studies on the black soldier fly larvae. A recent article in Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety investigated the benefits and challenges black soldier fly larvae could have as an ingredient.

Woman examining plant

Sustainability perspective of black soldier fly larvae as a protein source

According to the study authors, it’s estimated that less than half of a hectare of black soldier fly larvae can produce more protein than cattle grazing on around 1200 hectares, or 52 hectares of soybeans.

Not only that, but black soldier fly larvae can even feed on waste streams like animal waste, spent grains, or organic waste from crop agriculture, adding another layer to the potential sustainability benefit.

Nutrition benefits of black soldier fly larvae

According to the study, the larvae can be up to 61% protein at 5 days old and can also be rich in chitin, an indigestible carbohydrate that may act like a fiber in humans. They are also higher in fat than other insect-based protein sources, like cricket or mealworm, meaning black soldier fly larvae could behave differently in a food matrix.

Black soldier fly larvae are higher in iron and zinc than lean meat, which is a main source of these minerals in the human diet. Iron and zinc deficiencies are prevalent in many countries, including developed countries. The calcium content is similar to that of milk; calcium is also an under-consumed nutrient globally. This means black soldier fly larvae have potential as a functional food ingredient beyond just protein.

Functionality as a food ingredient

One study referenced by the review’s authors found that black soldier fly larvae flour had a good ability to retain water and oil, which can help with taste and texture in some meat foods and wheat doughs. A strong gelling capacity was also found. The foaming capacity of these proteins, however, was found to be low.

Challenges to adoption of insect protein

The study authors call out a few barriers to using black soldier fly larvae, or other insects, as protein sources in the human food supply.

Since these larvae recycle waste as an energy source, such as animal waste, there are inherent food safety issues that would need to be addressed. Heavy metal accumulation is also a risk given that the larvae can recycle waste streams, although this is a common concern among many alternate protein sources.

Finally, since insect proteins are novel in the food supply, there could be regulatory challenges to global adoption.

Is it up to consumers?

Even if the challenges listed above are solved, the issue of consumer acceptance still remains. Insect proteins as an ingredient have existed for some time now, and a primary hurdle to them breaking into the mainstream is consumer hesitance to consume the product. However, as pressure to improve sustainability of the food supply mounts, it’s possible these barriers to adoption could weaken.

To read the full study, click here.

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