Insects – food of the future

Tadeusz Bakuła
Insects can serve as important sources of food and feed and can have a positive impact on reducing world hunger. A team led by Prof. Tadeusz Bakuła is investigating this issue.

Prof. Tadeusz Bakuła explains the role of insects and the progress of the conducted research.

“Could you tell us why the research is so important?”
“FAO analyses suggest that by 2050, the Earth will be inhabited by around 9 billion people. The current volume of food production will need to be 70% higher. As the earth has limited resources, it is no longer possible to expand the areas for livestock farming while preserving the balance of the environment. Livestock production is one of the main causes of greenhouse gas production, global warming, soil degradation, air and water pollution and loss of biodiversity. Optimised insect farming for food and feed can have a lower impact on the environment than swine or cattle farming.”

“In Poland, we don't have too many insect food enthusiasts, but what is it like around the world?”
“At least 2 billion people worldwide consume insects in various forms – 250 insect species in Africa, 549 in Mexico, 180 in China and over 160 in Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and Oceania. More than 2,000 species of insects used as food for humans have been described so far. Interestingly, we actually eat insects without even knowing it. Basic food products, such as broccoli or tinned tomatoes, contain insect remains. One person eats about 100 grams of thrips per year. Aphids are regularly found in frozen vegetables (50 specimens per 100g). Juices contain the remains of fruit flies (5 specimens per 226g). Corn pests are commonly found in canned food. Insects are also present in fungi. The amount of flies and other insects eaten by unaware consumers is 1 kg/year.”

“Isn’t eating insects harmful?”
“The nutritional value of insects depends on their life stage, environment and diet. Insects provide high-quality protein and nutrients comparable to meat and fish. Insects are particularly important as a dietary supplement for children, as most insect species have a large amount of fatty acids (comparable to fish). They are also rich in fibre and micronutrients such as copper, iron, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus, selenium and zinc. Additionally, insects pose a low risk of transmitting zoonotic diseases such as H5N1 – bird flu – and BSE – mad cow disease. The inclusion of insects or processed insect protein in feeds is beneficial for animal health. The amino acid profile of insects corresponds to the nutritional needs of fish, poultry and pigs.”

“The project started in November 2018. What has been done so far?”
“We have already investigated the possibilities of using insect protein in poultry feed. We have selected two species with the greatest potential for mass breeding as an alternative source of protein in Poland. Our final choice is the black fly and the mealworm. These two species are, in fact, already being bred on a massive scale in Europe and worldwide.”

“What are the distinctive features of these species?”
“The black fly (Hermetia illucens, Black soldier fly) occurs in various regions of the world, although not in Poland. It is characterised by the fact that the adult insect does not intake food, i.e. does not attack animals or damage plants. Its goal is to produce offspring. The larvae, which are relatively large and develop very quickly, are the breeding object. The entire development lasts up to three weeks. In addition, it is possible to use organic and animal waste to feed the larvae. European Union regulations are quite strict, so vegetable waste, such as unsold fruit from supermarkets, is used to feed the larvae, yet in the United States, China, Vietnam or Korea, for instance, these restrictions are less stringent. It is often the case that next to a poultry farm, an insect farm is built feeding on poultry droppings. The mealworm (Tenebrio molitor) is a beetle of the Tenebrionidae family. It is one of the easiest insects to breed. The adult insect lives about a month; its lifespan, like that of the larvae, depends on the temperature. The higher it is, the faster the larva grows and the shorter the imago (the final stage of the insect) lives. The pupal stage lasts from 6 to 30 days – again, depending on the temperature.”

“You have chosen these two insect species and what comes next?”
“We analysed the products of these species in the laboratory. We assessed the nutritional value of insect protein and the potential microbiological and chemical hazards. We purchased insect meal from producers in various European countries, including Poland. The results were very clear: although the products are sold under the same name, their composition varies from one manufacturer to another. Certainly, the food the larvae are fed is of great importance. Next, we started to develop a feed formulation for a laboratory-scale nutritional test. Another task was to determine the limits of insect protein in individual poultry feed mixtures. After analysing the results from the first test, we concluded that replacing soy protein entirely or in a high percentage with insect protein is not beneficial and we do not recommend it. Five departments of our University participated in this research. We have now moved on to stage two of our studies.”

“What are you working on now?”
“We have just completed the first phase of an industrial scale experiment involving mealworm flour with lower doses of insect protein. We will now analyse them. Afterwards, we want to test the processing capacity of poultry meat and the quality of poultry that has been fed with insect protein. We are also planning to prepare two manuals for breeding specific insect species.


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