June 4, 2021

Protein found in mealworms is as easily absorbed by the body and incorporated into muscles as milk protein, according to new research carried out by scientists in the Netherlands.

The findings from researchers at Maastricht University and Wageningen University have been released just weeks after the European Union approved mealworms for human consumption.

“This research shows that insects are also an excellent source of high-quality protein and can have their value in promoting muscle retention in humans,” the study’s leader, Professor Luc van Loon, a Professor of Physiology of Exercise and Nutrition at Maastricht University, said in a statement.

Recently published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, the research saw 24 healthy, young men drink a shake that contained 30g of either milk protein or mealworm protein after a bout of exercise.

Some of the protein building blocks or amino acids found in the shakes had a chemical labelling, allowing the researchers to detect them in the bodies of participants.

Blood and muscle samples were collected regularly and analysed, allowing the researchers to look for differences in how the alternative types of protein had been absorbed and metabolised.

The researchers, eight from Maastricht University and one from Wageningen University, said in their paper that the ingestion of a “meal-like amount” of mealworm was followed by “rapid protein digestion and amino acid absorption”.

“The results showed that the ingestion of the insects led to a strong increase in muscle building, both at rest and after exercise,” Maastricht University said in a statement.

“These effects were not different from milk protein. Within a few hours of ingestion, the researchers were already able to find the amino acids in the participants’ muscle protein, which shows that you are literally what you eat.”

Regular protein intake is important because muscles are continually broken down and reformed, and animal foods are often seen as one of the best sources of these proteins.

In the study, a slightly larger amount of phenylalanine – the amino acid under investigation – was released into the circulatory system after milk protein was consumed compared to when mealworm protein was ingested. However, in both cases more than 70% of the ingested phenylalanine entered circulation and there was no significant difference between the two groups.

Likewise, there were no significant differences between the milk protein and mealworm protein participants in muscle protein synthesis rates.

“The … protein handling of lesser mealworm–derived protein [after a meal] does not differ compared with ingestion of the same amount of milk protein in vivo in humans, which shows that insects can provide a viable, high-quality protein source for human consumption,” the researchers wrote in the conclusion to their paper.

As reported in the SIAL Paris Newsroom, dried yellow mealworms were recently approved by the EU as human food after the European Food Safety Authority said they were safe for people to eat.

Sometimes described as a more environmentally sustainable alternative to traditional forms of animal protein, mealworms are high in fibre and fat as well as protein.

The larval form of a beetle with the scientific name Tenebrio molitor, have long been known as bird food, but are gaining increasing attention as a source of nutrition for people, with the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation highlighting in April their potential to “contribute to food and nutrition security”. This is seen as particularly important given that the world population is continuing to grow.

The new study by the researchers in the Netherlands is titled, ‘Insects are a viable protein source for human consumption: from insect protein digestion to postprandial muscle protein synthesis in vivo in humans: a double-blind randomised trial’.

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