Mealworms as an Alternative Protein Source for Health and Sustainability
As the world’s population continues to grow and climate change becomes more urgent, finding sustainable protein alternatives is crucial. While plant-based “meat” and “dairy” options have gained popularity, there is another green alternative that is often overlooked: mealworms.
Recent research conducted at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign suggests that incorporating mealworms into high-fat diets can offer numerous health benefits. The study, conducted on mice, found that replacing traditional protein sources with mealworms could slow weight gain, improve immune response, reduce inflammation, enhance energy metabolism, and positively affect cholesterol levels.
Lead study author Kelly Swanson, professor in the Department of Animal Sciences and interim director of the Division of Nutritional Sciences, explained the rationale behind the research. “In addition to more dietary fiber, nutritionists also recommend eating more high-quality proteins as part of a weight management plan. We knew from an earlier study in roosters that mealworms are a high-quality, highly digestible protein source that’s also environmentally sustainable,” Swanson said.
The research team fed mice a high-fat diet with casein, a protein from dairy, for 12 weeks before introducing mealworms as an alternative protein source. The mice consuming the high-fat diet had become obese and were experiencing metabolic syndrome, a cluster of conditions that increase the risk of heart attack, stroke, diabetes, and other health problems.
The mice then consumed two types of dried, powdered mealworms, substituting either 50% or 100% of the casein in their diet. The researchers measured various parameters such as body weight, body composition, blood metabolites, and gene expression of the liver and adipose tissue during and after eight weeks on the experimental diets.
The results showed that while mealworm protein did not cause the obese mice to lose weight, it slowed down their rate of weight gain compared to mice consuming high-fat diets with casein. Additionally, the mice experienced improvements in their blood lipid profiles, with a decrease in LDL (low-density lipoprotein, or “bad cholesterol”) and an increase in HDL (high-density lipoprotein, or “good cholesterol”). There were also positive changes in gene expression related to inflammation, lipid metabolism, and glucose metabolism.
The researchers hypothesized that these benefits might be associated with chitin, a fibrous material found in the exoskeleton of insects like mealworms. Although the role of chitin in health is not well understood, it seems to act as a fiber, promoting beneficial microbial activity in the gut. Swanson plans to further investigate the effects of mealworms on the mouse microbiome in an upcoming study.
While other studies have evaluated alternative proteins for obesity weight management in mice, most have used genetically altered mice designed to stay obese regardless of their diet. Swanson’s team intentionally used “wild type” mice to better mimic the way many humans gain weight through diet.
Despite the potential health benefits of mealworm protein, there remains significant hesitation in Western societies towards insect consumption. Swanson acknowledges the cultural aversion but highlights the long history of certain populations relying on insect proteins for sustenance. “With protein shortages becoming a reality, there may be a place for insect meals,” Swanson said.
However, it is worth noting that mealworm protein has not yet been approved by the Food and Drug Administration. For those curious about incorporating insects into their diet, cricket flour is a viable option. It can be used in various foods and is considered safe according to the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act.
In conclusion, mealworms present a promising alternative protein source that can contribute to both personal health and environmental sustainability. While societal attitudes towards insect consumption may need to shift, the potential benefits make it an option worth exploring. As further research is conducted and regulatory approvals are obtained, mealworms and other insect-based proteins may become a staple in our diets, helping us meet the growing demand for protein while reducing the environmental impact of traditional livestock farming.
“Yellow Mealworm (Tenebrio molitor) and Lesser Mealworm (Alphitobius diaperinus) Proteins Slowed Weight Gain and Improved Metabolism of Diet-Induced Obesity Mice” by Yifei Kang, Catherine C. Applegate, Fei He, Patricia M. Oba, Miranda D. Vieson, Lorena Sánchez-Sánchez, and Kelly S. Swanson, The Journal of Nutrition. DOI: 10.1016/j.tjnut.2023.06.014
The study was funded by Ynsect.