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Essential Science: EU clears mealworms as ‘safe to eat’

Are you ready for yellow mealworm finger foods, with mealworms coated in icing sugar? Perhaps chocolate would be best, given that mealworms are said to taste a little like peanuts. How about a smoothie? Or would you just settle for the powder form, to be used in baking? This is the new reality now that the European Union has declared mealworms as safe for human consumption.

The declaration has been made by the EU food safety agency, as reported by The Guardian. This came about after a French insect-for-food production company Agronutris requested approval. This decision means that mealworms will shortly be appearing on grocery store shelves.

The safety panel concluded: “There are no safety concerns regarding the stability of the novel food (NF) if the NF complies with the proposed specification limits during its entire shelf life.”

Agronutris is biotech company specializing in rearing and transforming insects into proteins for animal nutrition. To add to the recommended array of animals, humans can now be added.

According to Bloomberg, Arcluster predicts that the insects-as-food-market will grow tenfold to exceed $4.1 billion globally by 2025. This is due to insects emerging as a more sustainable source of protein. This is due to the lower environmental impact. In addition, many insect farms are starting to attract high-levels of venture-capital financing. As reviewed by Wired, there are three primary outputs from insect farming. These are: Protein, fats, and insect manure (called frass, used as a fertilizer). It is with protein that the biggest profits can be made.

What are mealworms?

Mealworms are the larval form of the mealworm beetle, Tenebrio molitor. This is a species of darkling beetle. The life-stages are: Egg, larva, pupa, and adult beetle. T. molitor is a pest of grain, flour and food stores.

Meal-worms consume Styrofoam  which could be the answer for biodegrading plastic and Styrofoam produ...

Meal-worms consume Styrofoam, which could be the answer for biodegrading plastic and Styrofoam products.
Yu Yang, Et. Al.

What is of interest in terms of the food source are the larvae. This form measures approximately 2.5 cm in length. The numbers are plentiful; over its lifetime the female beetle lays around 500 eggs. In the industrial context, for making pet food, companies specializing in this field often add a juvenile hormone to the feed of the worm. This helps to hold the mealworm in the larval stage. Hormone additives can also help the larvae to grow slightly bigger.

Source of nutrients

The mealworm’s main components are protein, fat, and fibre (chitin). The reason there is a level of interest is because the mealworm provides a sustainable and low carbon-emission source of food and one that might help with sustainability projects and reduce the reliance upon rearing animals for food, plus the environmental impact that goes with this.

Fried crickets  roasted cockroach  honey-flavoured ants  mealworm and chocolate coated popcorn are n...

Fried crickets, roasted cockroach, honey-flavoured ants, mealworm and chocolate coated popcorn are now available to try and buy in Australia's cities — and while the cuisine remains a novelty, there are signs it is growing in popularity

Mealworms have been eaten for centuries in many Asian countries. However, in other parts of the world, the idea is not popular. This could be about to change.

One driver is the nutrient value. With each 100 grams of raw mealworm larvae, this contains 206 calories and up to 25 grams of protein. Essential minerals consist of potassium, copper, sodium, selenium, iron and zinc. Researchers also found levels of vitamin B12 to be 1.08 µg/100 g for the yellow mealworm.

This rich array of nutrients is not found in all insects. The nutritional values of edible insects are highly variable, not least because of the wide variety of species.

Solving world hunger

Entomophagy (or anthropo-entomophagy) describes the practice of eating insects and it has advocated in relation to overall nutrient value, solving hunger, and tackling climate change. It is estimate there are some 1,900 edible insect species worldwide.

Tackling hunger crises in South Sudan  Somalia  Nigeria and Yemen requires $4.4 billion – UN.

Tackling hunger crises in South Sudan, Somalia, Nigeria and Yemen requires $4.4 billion – UN.

Greater consumption of insects not only has environmental adherents, but there are also advocates who argue that greater consumption of insects can help to address world hunger. For instance, the United Nations published a report called ‘Edible Insects‘ in 2013. This report set put the case for insects to provide enough food for a growing population–insects are a great source of protein.

Allergic reactions

Not everyone can consume mealworms. Aside from vegetarians and vegans, for those with a prawn or dust mite allergy, there are some risks in a similar reaction occurring when the mealworm larvae are digested. This is either incomplete or powder form.

Furthermore, there have been several cases of skin reaction, eye itching or asthma have been related when people were in contact with mealworms.

Safety issues

To make pet food, mealworms are often killed by freezing. However, with those insects destined for human consumption these are first sterilized in hot water and then are refrigerated or freeze-dried. However, global regulations will vary.

Essential Science

This article forms part of Digital Journal’s long-running Essential Science series, where new research items relating to wider science stories of interest are presented by Dr. Tim Sandle on a weekly basis.

Marine debris litters a beach on Laysan Island in the Hawaiian Islands National Wildlife Refuge  whe...

Marine debris litters a beach on Laysan Island in the Hawaiian Islands National Wildlife Refuge, where it washed ashore.
Susan White / US Fish and Wildlife Service (CC BY 2.0)

Last week, looking at COVID-19 from an environmental perspective, we asked what has been the effect of the pandemic upon the environment? The results, we found, were mixed, depending upon which aspect of ecology is examined.

The week before we considered the six COVID-19 vaccines for which certain national regulatory authorities have authorized the use, plus the many potential COVID-19 vaccine candidates currently in development. With this level of activity, we posed and answered the question: How are these vaccines developed?

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Written By

Dr. Tim Sandle is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for science news. Tim specializes in science, technology, environmental, business, and health journalism. He is additionally a practising microbiologist; and an author. He is also interested in history, politics and current affairs.

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