May 7, 2021

Mealworms could soon be on the menu for people in Europe after officials gave the green light for them to be used in food as an alternative source of protein.

The European Union has approved dried yellow mealworms as human food, with the creatures suitable to be consumed whole or in powdered form, on their own or as an ingredient.

The decision follows findings released earlier this year by European food safety experts, who said that mealworms – familiar to many as bird food – were safe for people to eat.

It represents the first time that the European Food Safety Authority has given the go ahead for people to eat insects, with the mealworms being the larval form of a beetle with the scientific name Tenebrio molitor.

The protein-rich mealworms, which also have high fibre and fat content, are seen as offering environmental benefits over meat, as the insects place less demand on natural resources.

Their use as food by humans has been given the thumbs up by the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), which said in April that they can “diversify diets, improve livelihoods, contribute to food and nutrition security and have a lower ecological footprint”.

“These potential benefits combined with a heightened interest in exploring alternative sources of food that are both nutritious and environmentally sustainable are spurring commercial production of insects as food and animal feed,” the FAO said in a statement.

With the human population set to grow to nine billion by 2050, the FAO said that agriculture would place greater strains on the environment. In this context, the potential benefits of eating insects – which offer higher yields for a given area of land – are even greater.

“Insects have a high food conversion rate, e.g. crickets need six times less feed than cattle, four times less than sheep, and twice less than pigs and broiler chickens to produce the same amount of protein,” the FAO said.

“Besides, they emit less greenhouse gases and ammonia than conventional livestock. [Also] insects can be grown on organic waste.”

Eating insects – or entomophagy – has been carried out by traditional communities for generations, but farming insects for people or animals to eat is a relatively recent phenomenon.

But mealworms are just one of a number of alternative forms of protein gaining prominence at the moment.
Technology around lab-grown meat, including seafood, is advancing rapidly thanks to significant investments, while fungi-derived mycoprotein is also seen as an alternative to meat.

According to a report, Meat: The Future, published by the World Economic Forum, demand for meat-based protein will double by 2050 as the world becomes more prosperous.

Figures published by the forum have highlighted the way that global meat consumption has already grown significantly, with demand driven not just by population increases, but also greater wealth.

Annual meat consumption in China, for example, is now above 80 million tonnes per year, about four times the figure of the 1970s.

The United States too has seen significant increases, with well over 40 million tonnes produced each year now, compared to less than 20 million tonnes in the early 1960s.

While mealworms are seen as an environmentally friendly alternative to meat, and could lessen slightly the growth in meat consumption likely to be seen in the coming decades, they bring with them new issues around food safety.

In a recent report looking at edible insects from a food safety perspective, the FAO noted that there are potential allergenic risks, along with hazards that are found with eating any foods, including the risk of chemical contamination or the potential for foods to contain harmful bacteria or fungi.

“Safety risks of eating insects highly depend on the insect species, the environment they are reared in or collected from, what they eat, and the production and processing methods used,” the FAO said.

“A thorough assessment of food safety hazards will help to establish appropriate hygiene and manufacturing practices, which remain a challenges for the sector.”

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