Bugs in your bread? They are good for you – and the planet

By Anastasia Yandulskaya, PhD candidate in Cell and Molecular Biology

Imagine picking up a loaf of bread at a grocery store. You read the ingredients on the bag and notice something peculiar: sandwiched between wheat flour and yeast, you see the name of an insect species. 

Would you buy this bread?

Let’s be honest: food with bugs sounds off-putting. But eating insects is part of many cultures, and it has increased in popularity worldwide in recent years. 

So, is there a benefit of eating bread from ground bugs? A recent study, published in the journal Food Research International, found that insect bread tastes as fine as all-wheat bread but packs a punch in protein and mineral content. 

Beetle bread

An Italy-based team of scientists set out to investigate the nutritional value of the lesser mealworm. Despite the name, this insect is a beetle. It is often fed to pet reptiles, but it isn’t a common ingredient in human food. The scientists studied how powder from dried-out lesser mealworms performed in baked goods.

In the lab, the researchers baked rusks, which are hard biscuits. The researchers used wheat flour or substituted part of the flour with dried and powdered lesser mealworm. Some of the mealworm rusks contained a modest 10% of insect powder, and others packed a whopping 30%.

Rusks are hard biscuits made by double-baking bread slices. Because they contain very little water, they last longer than regular bread.

The scientists then measured the amount of protein in the freshly baked biscuits.   Employing the Kjeldahl method, the research team used sulfuric acid to convert all of the rusks’ nitrogen content into ammonium, which they then measured. From the known amount of ammonia, the scientists back-calculated how much protein there had been in the rusks. Biscuits with 10% insect powder contained up to 16% protein,  a third more than all-wheat rusks, and biscuits with 30% insect powder boasted an impressive 25% protein content. 

Elements like magnesium and iron are also essential for good nutritional value, so the researchers looked into the mineral composition of the rusks. They used a machine called the mass spectrometer, which identifies what metal atoms are present in the samples. Insect-based biscuits scored high on mineral composition as well. The rusks were especially enriched in zinc, which is necessary for the immune system to function well.

Finally, the research team estimated the number of calories in the baked goods. All-wheat biscuits contained 328 kcal per 100 grams, about the same amount of energy as 10% insect powder rusks (330 kcal per 100 grams). The 30% insect powder rusks were a little more filling, with 352 kcal per 100 grams.

The taste test

Even though laboratory methods revealed that insect powder-based biscuits were more nutritious than all-wheat ones, one big question remained: did the buggy biscuits pack as much taste? The only way to find out was to put the biscuits, insects and all, into hungry — and brave — mouths.

The researchers recruited a small group of taste testers and had them rate the tastiness of each baked treat on a scale from 1 to 9. The taste testers ruled that the all-wheat and 10% insect powder tasted about the same (6 out of 9), which is fair, given that the tasting team was essentially chewing on dry toast. But for the first time in the study, the 30% insect powder rusks didn’t measure up. The tasters gave them a meager 3 out of 9 rating, indicating that rusks heavy in lesser mealworm powder were far from scrumptious. 

Can eating insects help save the planet?

Adding insects to our diets may help us meet our daily nutritional goals by providing more protein and essential minerals. But these are not the only reasons why insects might eventually become a diet staple.

Lesser mealworm larvae are sold as snacks, often under the name of buffalo worms. Larvae are young beetles that have a worm-like appearance.

Sourcing our food from insects is a promising solution to the many problems plaguing our food supply, from land shortage to carbon footprint. Raising insects requires less water than cattle, and bugs don’t emit nearly as much greenhouse gas as cows.

With insects emerging as a sustainable and nutritious food source, this study may help put lesser mealworm beetles on the menu. Other scientists had also researched the benefits of adding insects into food. Those insects were often crickets. Now, there are bakeries around the world that sell cricket-based treats. 

Maybe one day, we will routinely stroll into our local coffee shops and choose between cricket chocolate cupcakes and mealworm mango muffins. Until then, getting used to the idea of eating insects may be a good start for many of us.

Peer-edited by Jason Wermers, M.S. student in Health Science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore

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