Bugs get a bad rap.
Some bite. Some sting. Some stink.
But what if they could be considered beyond their pesky traits? What if certain insects could actually benefit the health of humans, of animals, of the entire planet?
Virginia Tech scientists think they can, and they have the research to prove it.
Faculty at the Virginia Seafood Agricultural Research and Extension Center are testing – and eating – certain insects to develop alternative and sustainable food sources to support a world population forecasted to reach 10 billion by 2050.
Some of the insects, seven, in their lab so far, are edible on their own. Others are being converted to proteins that are rich in nutrients and antioxidants and incorporated into bars and cookies. And the bugs aren’t just for human consumption. Some of the insects are being used in animal feed, as well.
Beyond its nutritional value, the consumption of bugs is also a boost for the economy and Mother Nature, explained Reza Ovissipour, an assistant professor in the Virginia Tech Department of Food Science and Technology and Virginia Cooperative Extension specialist.
“Blending our current agricultural practices with insect-based protein will increase the food supply to meet demand while reducing pressure on natural resources,” he said. “Eating bugs is good for the Earth. It is good for the environment, and it is good for your health.”
Ovissipour began the insect protein project in 2018, inspired by a problem that had been bugging him for some time.
“Many agricultural byproducts have high value, and they are being thrown away. Not only are they not being used, but they are also being added to the environment and causing environmental issues,” he said.
In Ovissipour’s lab, these valuable by-products aren’t treated as waste, but rather, as insect feed.
“We are using different types of agricultural waste materials, which are really rich in proteins, fibers, and carbohydrates, to feed our insects,” he said.
Loud and annoying with their buzzes and clicks, two of the most common insects used are black soldier flies and crickets.
Using fermentation and different bioprocessing methods, the insects are eventually converted to protein with high nutritional and medicinal value. Research suggests this source of protein may mitigate several health problems, including hypertension, Ovissipour said.
Once the protein is created, it is extracted and mixed with different ingredients to produce certain food items, such as cookies and protein bars with endless flavor possibilities. Some are savory. Some are sweet. Popular among Ovissipour’s team is barbecue.
Ovissipour compared the process to that of brewing beer: Yeast converts glucose to create a value-added beverage.
Also in his lab are bugs such as cicadas, silkworms, and scorpions that are edible on their own. Their taste isn’t preferred by everyone, but neither is the taste of seafood, beef, or poultry, Ovissipour pointed out.
The research team has been working with large companies and insect producers across the United States to put the products on the market.
Some, such as crickets, silkworms, scorpions, meal worms, sago worms, and Junebugs, are already on store shelves, Ovissipour said, so be on the lookout.
FROM THE LAB TO THE TABLE
Beyond insect harvesting, Ovissipour’s team is also using similar research methods to create cultivated meat: animal cells grown in vitro to form anything from chicken tenders to salmon fillets.
This effort is an additional attempt to keep pace with the growing demand for food and meat, he said.
“Compounded with diminishing land and water resources and an accelerating climate crisis, new technologies that maximize resource efficiency and minimize waste are needed to feed an increasingly hungry world,” Ovissipour said.