Could mealworms be your next dietary recommendation?

By Sarah Handzel, BSN, RN | Fact-checked by Jessica Wrubel
Published September 23, 2022

Key Takeaways

  • In the US alone, an estimated 38 million people, including 12 million children, experience food insecurity, prompting investigations of novel food sources.

  • Using mealworms, South Korean scientists have created a “meat-like” substance that could one day be used as a high-quality protein source.

  • There are still challenges to industrial mealworm production, such as acceptance, cost, and legislature.

The growing worldwide problem of food insecurity has prompted a search for new food sources.

Westerners often view eating insects with a mixture of fascination and disgust. However, scientists around the world are exploring insects as a replacement source of protein that could help feed billions—including, perhaps someday, your patients.

Food insecurity

Experts at the UN estimate that nearly 2.37 billion people worldwide experience food insecurity.[] The US isn’t exempt from this—some estimates indicate that more than 38 million Americans (including about 12 million children) experience this problem.[]

Food insecurity is generally defined as a lack of consistent access to enough food to maintain a healthy, active lifestyle.

Since the global population is expected to continue growing, research on new food sources is becoming increasingly important.

One source comes from an unexpected place (for most, anyway). Many cultures around the world already consider insects a quality source of protein in their daily diets; in fact, an estimated 2 billion people already eat around 1,900 different kinds of insects willingly, considering them a healthy, palatable food source.[]

Mealworms can be tasty, too

Mealworms are beetle larvae that have already been explored as an alternative to animal meat. Recently, scientists in South Korea completed research that added sugar to mealworms, creating a “meat-like” substance that could possibly be used as an extra protein source in the future.

Mealworms already boast several health and environmental benefits.

For example, their protein, vitamin, and mineral content is similar to that found in meat and fish. They are more drought-resistant than cattle and are generally considered a more environmentally-friendly food option than beef, pork, chicken, and milk.

Some companies already market cooked mealworms as a wholesome, salty snack.[] In some places, including Mexico, mealworms are used to enrich traditional foods like tortillas. To appeal more to Western markets, South Korean scientists researched the insect’s flavor profile throughout its entire lifecycle.

The team compared the different flavor profiles of cooked mealworms using different methods. According to Hojun Seo, a member of the research team, compounds produced from roasting and frying mealworms were comparable to those formed when both meat and seafood are cooked.

These results prompted further research that included adding sugar to heated, protein-rich mealworms. After testing, they were left with what they called a “meat-like” substance with generally savory-tasting flavors. While not yet ready for commercial availability, it’s thought that such a product could eventually be used in different food applications, such as convenience foods, to help add extra protein.

Mass production promises and challenges

If further research continues to demonstrate the efficacy of mealworms as a quality protein replacement, the infrastructure to raise them commercially is already in place in some locations.

Mealworms are currently being raised on an industrial scale; they can easily be grown on low-nutritive waste products as feed for animals such as broiler chickens.

They’re also already being raised as pet food products in North America, Europe, and some parts of Asia.

In addition to being eaten whole, mealworms can be sold as dried products, canned, or as a powder. Eventually, they may become additives in flour, bread, pastries, biscuits, candy, instant noodles, and even condiments. They may also be used as a food source for an expanding variety of other animals, such as dogs, cats, birds, and turtles.

While mealworms are promising as an alternative source of protein, there are still significant challenges preventing their widespread use.

The first (and perhaps most obvious) is consumer acceptance. Research also indicates mealworms are approximately three times more expensive to produce than pork, and about five times more expensive to raise and harvest than chickens.

Producing mealworms for consumption on an industrial scale will require changes to legal frameworks, both nationally and internationally. Plus, new forms of financing will be required for mealworm growth efforts to succeed.

“Recently, eating insects has become of interest because of the increasing cost of animal protein, as well as the associated environmental issues,” the study’s principal investigator, In Hee Cho, PhD, wrote.

"Insects are a nutritious and healthy food source with high amounts of fatty acids, vitamins, minerals, fiber, and high-quality protein, which is like that of meat."

Hee Cho, PhD

Clinicians and nutritionists should stay apprised on the ongoing development of mealworms and other unconventional sources as potential food sources. Before long, you may be recommending a mealworm-based meal to patients.

What this means for you

The creation of a “meat-like” substance using mealworms could one day be used as a high-quality protein source in a variety of food products. However, there are still challenges to producing mealworms for human consumption on an industrial scale. But perhaps in time, they could become a common, nutritious food source you may consider recommending to patients.

Read Next: Are we biologically designed to be frugivores?

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