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Insects as food and feed

Douglas Moore of Monkfield Nutrition considers the potential for developing insects as an alternative source of protein for human food and animal feed.


Eating insects (entomophagy) is a bizarre concept for many of us. However, it is normal for approximately two billion people, from 3,000 ethnic groups in 113 countries, for whom food includes over 2,000 insect species. Even in the UK we unknowingly eat around half a kilo of insects a year. All processed foods include insects; either deliberately added as carmine red food colouring E120, made from cochineal bugs, or accidentally harvested with plants because they are so abundant in nature that it is impossible to remove them all.

These insect fragments make it into coffee, peanut butter, chocolate and much more. Now an enterprising group of entrepreneurs, scientists, foodies and farmers are working to bring insect protein to our supermarket shelves in a big way: as an alternative protein source in food and livestock’s feed. This article will look at the fantastic potential of the emerging insects as food and feed markets and the challenges they face.

The UN is backing insects as a vital source of food and feed to secure global food security due to their nutritional profile[1]. Although the diversity of insect species makes generalisations difficult, several insect species were shown to have equivalent nutritional value to many meat products. For example the house cricket (Acheta domesticus) has comparable protein content and digestibility to beef and egg providing all 9 essential amino acids; it is also a richer source of polyunsaturated fats than beef, delivered in the ideal ratio of 3:1 omega-6 to omega-3[3].

Edible insects: the yuck factor

The biggest challenge entomophagy faces in the western world is the ’yuck factor’: an immediate negative reaction, as demonstrated in I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here.

This repulsion is a learnt psychological aversion, which can easily be overcome by getting people to taste a delicious, highly nutritious food, which happens to be made using crickets. The positive taste experience rapidly overwhelms the immediate knee jerk resistance.

Forty years ago the thought of eating raw fish turned the stomachs of most westerners, but today there are packs of sushi in every garage forecourt and a YO! Sushi on most high streets.

The majority of the effort to use insect protein focuses on disguising the ‘insect character’ within easily recognisable foods, like burger patties and baked goods, apart from a few novelty foods like insect lollipops. Here the challenge lies with chefs and food technologists to develop appealing, tasty dishes and with psychologists, advertisers and marketers to make entomophagy acceptable to the general public.

Adult banded crickets (Gryllodes sigillatus) searching for a suitable egg laying site
Mealworms are the larval stage of a beetle, Tenebrio molitor, and are suitable for use in both food and feed

Insects as feed

Insects are a part of the natural diets of many livestock, including poultry, pigs and fish, and could have a massive impact on the livestock feed industry.

Soaring soybean and fish meal prices mean that the search is on for alternative protein sources for animal feed. Additionally, the incredible diversity of insect species, estimated at over one million, offers the tantalising possibility that insects adapted to regional conditions could be farmed locally, reducing the need for international transport of animal feeds, increasing national and regional protein security and countering the negative environmental impact of some feed sources, for example Chilean fishmeal or Brazilian soybeans grown in what used to be the Amazon Rainforest.

Global food chain

Incorporating insects into the global food chain provides an opportunity to address the huge challenge of feeding 9.6 billion people by 2050 and responding to the expected 57% increased demand for high quality animal protein over the same period. Furthermore, 78% of all agricultural land is currently used in livestock production (grazing = 68%, cropland for animal feed = 10%) with 80% of new croplands replacing forests.

These challenges must be met while facing soil depletion, spreading oceanic dead zones and climate change (animal agriculture is one of the top three emitters of greenhouse gases, producing more than the global transport system). At the same time, the remaining wild spaces and their associated biodiversity and ecosystem services, which maintain Earth’s capacity to support life, must be preserved. Individually these issues would be challenging, together they threaten our very existence.

There are a number of ways in which we can try to address the challenges of increasing demand for protein and environmental degradation. These solutions include eating less meat, transitioning from inefficient ruminants to more efficient poultry and swine, and developing new and emerging technologies including cultured meats and protein from algal, fungal and insect origins.

In comparison to traditional agriculture, insect farming has a tiny foot print: kilo-to-kilo edible insect protein requires 500 times less water, 12 times less feed, and 10 times less land than beef, while producing 613 times less greenhouse gases[4, 5].

Traditional livestock production has been subjected to selection and improvement for generations, with a recent specific drive for feed conversion efficiency resulting in massive improvements in productivity: under optimal conditions a broiler in 1985 could reach 1.40kg in 35 days using 3.22 kg of feed, but by 2000, broilers could reach 2.44kg on 3.66 kg of feed[6].

If the toolkit developed in traditional agriculture of breeding, genetics, husbandry, nutrition and veterinary science is applied to insects, the potential for rapid improvement, from an already highly efficient starting point, is huge.

Additionally, certain insect species can be reared on waste by-products of the food production industry. This provides an opportunity to recapture and recycle the potassium, phosphorous, nitrogen and energy stored in these waste substances opening opportunities to make profit from what is otherwise waste.

The ability of desert locusts (Schistocerca gregaria) to naturally form swarms of biblical proportions means that they are ideally suited for farming

Insects as food

The vast majority of insects on the menu are collected in the wild. However, it is vitally important that harvesting from natural stocks is well managed, as with fisheries, to ensure that populations are maintained at sustainable levels to protect both the target species and the complex food webs in which they live. This, coupled with seasonal and yearly population fluctuations, means the best way to incorporate insects into the global food system is through farming.

From the diversity of insects consumed globally, fewer than 20 are currently being developed for use in mass production systems. Favoured species include crickets, grasshoppers, caterpillars and beetles.

It appears that these species are selected for a few key reasons: ease of rearing, cheapness of food source, capacity to be reared at high density, high reproductive rate and high fecundity. These are probably the same reasons that have led to many of these species being reared for some time for niche markets, such as pet food and laboratory supply. As a result, a knowledge base on rearing these insects has developed, while the vast majority of our entomological knowledge focuses on destroying insects as agricultural pests and vectors of disease.

Encouraging insect consumption

There is a range of products entering the European market containing edible insects in a more or less visible format. A large number of novelty snacks are available – from sweet chilli locusts to ant lollipops – and although these perform an important role in getting people to first eat insects, it is likely that whole insects will remain a niche market for the time being.

The majority of companies entering the edible insect trade are incorporating insects into easily recognisable products to fortify the protein content, disguising their visible insect characteristics in cereal bars, pastas and energy bars.

Exciting work is also being undertaken reconstituting insect protein to produce bolognaises, meatballs and chicken style nuggets; we are just beginning to understand the functional properties of insect extracts in industrial applications, such as gel and emulsion forming. The diversity of edible insects is also reflected in their flavours, from nutty grasshoppers to scrambled egg-like caterpillars to citrusy ants, the opportunity is there for enterprising chefs to excite and challenge the palate.

The majority of companies entering the edible insect trade are incorporating insects into easily recognisable products to fortify the protein content, disguising their visible insect characteristics in cereal bars, pastas and energy bars

Challenges for insects as food


Secondary to the yuck factor as a barrier to acceptance of insect foods is the cost: currently the price is around £55 per kg. However, this is expected to drop rapidly as production operations increase in size, labour requirements decrease as companies increase the automation of production, and diets are tailored to better suit the requirements of the insect and to improve desirable characteristics. As these improvements come into effect, market analysts anticipate 40% compound annual growth in the edible insect market until 2023.

Allergic reaction

One area of uncertainty with the potential to disrupt the acceptance of edible insects concerns allergic reactions to them, especially in those who are allergic to shellfish. Currently, most companies include warnings on their packaging similar to those on peanut-containing foods. This is an area which will need serious investigation in the future.

The law

Globally, the growing interest in edible insects has been met with varying levels of acceptance. In countries with historic entomophagy, there is wide acceptance. However, in the Eurocentric world, which does not have a history of eating insects, there are varying levels of acceptance.

The European Commission’s Novel Foods Regulations protect consumers from new and potentially dangerous foods entering the market before their safety is proven.

However, these regulations were ambiguous on insect foods, resulting in wildly different regulation across the EU. Italy completely banned their sale while the UK has no specific legislation on insect foods allowing the entry of foods containing several species onto the market.

Finland also banned the sale of insect foods but savvy entrepreneurs marketed them as ‘kitchen ornaments’ in order to get their products on to the market. The Netherlands appears to be leading the way with edible insects, thanks to the concerted efforts of insect researchers across the country spearheading a campaign to get the Dutch eating insects. This was launched in 2006 with a mass insect eating in Wageningen.

To address this discrepancy, the EU brought in an amendment to the Novel Foods process on January 1st 2018, stating that all species of edible insects need to have an application accepted to prove their safety as food. In order to protect businesses, those with products already on the market have been given two years grace to have an application accepted.

Insects as feed

The spiralling cost of soy- and fish-meal is driving demand for new protein sources for animal feed to improve European protein security. Insects offer such an opportunity. The species suitable for animal feeds are as efficient as those for human consumption, but are considered unsuitable for human foods for various reasons, including their feed stock and their general unpalatability.

It is unsurprisingly difficult to persuade people to eat cockroaches and maggots regardless of their benefits! Furthermore, these insects can often be reared on feed stock that is unsuitable for rearing animals for human consumption, including manure and food waste.

It is estimated that approximately 1/3 of all food produced is wasted, that is 1.3 billion tonnes per year worth US$750 billion or the equivalent of 198 million hectares of cropland, not accounting for inedible or undesirable portions of the crop. Insects offer an exciting opportunity to capture and recycle the nutrients currently lost from the food system either to landfill, anaerobic digestion, composting or use as organic fertilisers.

Two species of particular interest for animal feed applications are the house fly and the black soldier fly. The larvae of both can feed on a wide range of organic material providing the opportunity to transition from a linear to a circular food production system, converting wastes of little or no value into high quality protein and fats for use as feed stocks, establishing a food system that more closely replicates the status quo in nature, where there is almost no waste as nutrients, such as nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium and carbon, are recycled.

The law

Globally there are a number of markets for insects as feed, including crickets in Thailand and the black soldier flies in South Africa.

However, exploitation of this opportunity in Europe has so far been prevented due to laws introduced in the 1990’s to prevent the emergence and spread of diseases, such as BSE (mad cow disease), banning the use of animal products in feed. These laws were amended to allow the use of fishmeal and from 1st July 2017 the EU has allowed the use of insect proteins in aquaculture feeds (EU Regulation 2017/893) albeit under strict regulation.

It is hoped that this regulatory change will pave the way for insects to enter the diets of other livestock. With some initial evidence that replacing both soybean and fish meal with insect protein in broiler chicken feeds improves carcass weights and meat quality[7], the opportunity may be even greater than simply in protein replacement.


There will be no silver bullet to solve the challenges faced in providing protein for the growing global population. The causes are too complex and entrenched, their effects too wide ranging and diverse. However, the integration of insects into the human food chain can help to ensure global food security for the next century, reducing the impact of our food production systems on the climate and oceans and the capacity of the Earth to sustain our civilisation for future generations.

There is obviously a huge amount of work to be done to bring this niche area into the mainstream and to achieve this will take commitment and investment from across the whole of society.

Gryllus bimaculatus

Black crickets, top, (Gryllus bimaculatus) laying eggs into soil
Hatchling crickets, above, are known as ‘Pin Heads’ due to their tiny size

Multiple species of cricket are commercially reared as food, with over 20,000 facilities in Thailand alone. The black

cricket is one of the favoured species due to its superior taste.

They have a high reproductive rate and short life cycle: females can lay over a thousand eggs during their 45-day lives.

The crickets are reared in a range of containers from 15L plastic boxes to shipping containers, fed on the cheapest available diet, which is often chicken feed. Adding vertical structures, e.g. bamboo tubes or cardboard egg boxes, increases the number of insects that can be reared in a given area. Stacking rearing containers further improves space use efficiency.

Adult crickets have chitinous wings, so for consumption they are harvested as juveniles to avoid additional processing. This is also often the case with locusts and beetles. Upon harvesting G. bimaculatus

contains 60% protein and 21% fat[2].

Hermetia illucens

Larvae of the black soldier fly (Hermetia illucens) are voracious consumers, so are ideal for recycling organic wastes into high quality protein and fats for livestock feed

As early as 1919 it was suggested that flies be used to produce animal feeds. H. illucens larvae are large maggots, which grow from a 0.015mg egg to 35mm long, 0.5g larvae in as little as two weeks, at which point they are


A full life cycle can take as little as 35 days and an adult female will lay around 400 eggs, meaning that relatively small breeding populations can be maintained.

The larvae have a prodigious growth rate and a voracious appetite – they can be fed on most organic material including vegetable matter, meat and animal manures, and can reach harvest compositions of up to 45% protein and 35% fat.

Black soldier flies are the only species of insect approved for use in animal feed in the USA (fish) and Canada (fish and poultry), and are one of the species allowed in aquaculture in the EU.

H. illucens has a number of benefits over other insects for animal feed: mature larvae leave their rearing substrate seeking pupation sites which allows self-harvesting, they vector no diseases, and can reduce E.coli populations in their feed by 2.5 log[2].

Douglas Moore

Monkfield Nutrition Ltd,

Church Farm Barn, Wendy, Royston, Herts, SG8 0HJ.

Photographs supplied courtesy Adam Singleton, Monkfield Nutrition.


Telephone 01223 208261



1.  van Huis, A., et al., Edible insects: future prospects for food and feed security. 2013, Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

2.  van Huis, A.A. and J.K. Tomberlin, Insects as food and feed: from production to consumption. Insects as food and feed: from production to consumption. Wageningen: Wageningen Academic Publishers.

3.  Payne, C.L.R., et al., Are edible insects more or less ‘healthy' than commonly consumed meats? A comparison using two nutrient profiling models developed to combat over- and undernutrition. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2016. 70(3): p. 285-291.

4.  Miglietta, P., et al., Mealworms for Food: A Water Footprint Perspective. Water, 2015. 7(11): p. 6190.

5.  Oonincx, D., et al., An Exploration on Greenhouse Gas and Ammonia Production by Insect Species Suitable for Animal or Human Consumption. Plos One, 2010. 5(12): p. 7.

6.  Siegel, P.B., Evolution of the modern broiler and feed efficiency. Annu Rev Anim Biosci, 2014. 2: p. 375-85.

7.  Pieterse, E., et al., The carcass quality, meat quality and sensory characteristics of broilers raised on diets containing either <i>Musca domestica</i> larvae meal, fish meal or soya bean meal as the main protein source. Animal Production Science, 2014. 54(5): p. 622-628.

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