New protein sources are urgently needed to meet the increasing demand of the world’s growing population. Traditional meat production requires a lot of space and natural resources. Alternative, sustainable protein sources, such as insects, can contribute to a solution to this problem. Wageningen University & Research is investigating the potential of insects as a source of protein for human food and animal feed.
Insects as food
Worldwide, approximately 2100 species of insects are edible for humans. Because they can breed and grow quickly, there are important opportunities for insects as an alternative source of protein. The nutritional value of insect ‘meat’ is comparable to that of meat from traditional livestock. However, for the production of one kilo of edible product, cold-blooded insects need much less food than warm-blooded livestock. In addition, the greenhouse gas emissions from insects are up to one hundred times lower than those from pigs or cattle. This makes insects a sustainable and economically interesting solution for part of the world food problem.
Insects as animal feed
Both the food industry and the animal feed industry are interested in alternative sources of protein. Research has shown that the nutritional value of insects is at least comparable with the nutritional value of soya beans and fish meal products. Feed from insects can play a major role in making the food chain circular. This is because insects can be grown on by-products and residual flows from the agrifood sector and on livestock manure. As a result they can contribute to sustainable livestock farming. Wageningen University & Research is conducting research into the possibilities of using insects as animal feed.
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As with chicken and pork, insect ‘meat’ could pose a danger to food safety. Insects can potentially transmit bacteria that originate from contaminated insect feed. Furthermore, any heavy metals and pesticides in insect feed could also end up in the insects themselves. Recent research has also shown that certain insect species carry the same allergens as dust mites and crustaceans. As a result, people who are sensitive to dust mites and crustaceans could also experience an allergic reaction from eating these insects. These examples clearly show that more research is needed to discover any dangers from using insects in food.
Since January 1st 2018, foods with insects have been categorised as 'novel foods' according to European legislation. This means that products with insects can enter the European market only after they have been approved by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).
The first positive evaluation report was published by EFSA in January 2021, concerning the yellow mealworm (Tenebrio molitor). It was concluded that the consumption of the powder or whole insects would not raise any safety concerns. It was noted that these insects may cause an allergic reaction, and more research into this issue was recommended. The final step before this product is fully approved, is a change in the legislation. It is expected that this will soon follow for the yellow mealworm, and that the EFSA opinions on other insect species and products will be published soon as well.
Since 2017, the use of insects in animal feed for fish farming has been permitted in Europe. Before that time, insects could only be fed to pets - such as reptiles, dogs or cats - and after processing the fat from insects could be used in feed for pigs and chickens. In the long term it is expected that whole insects or insect products, such as insect proteins, will be approved as feed for livestock.