The European Union (EU) has given the green light to include more insects in foods.
A new regulation called Implementing Regulation 2023/58 is all set to come into effect.
This regulation allows certain types of insect larvae, specifically Alphitobius diaperinus, to be sold as food.
These little larvae, or the lesser mealworm, can be sold in different forms like frozen, paste, dried, or powdered.
And yes, this means that you might start seeing them in various food products soon.
With this approval, the number of insects and their derivatives that can be sold as novel food in the European Union has increased to four.
Before this, Europeans already had mealworms, locusts, and crickets approved for food use.
Lesser Mealworms for Human Consumption
For now, only one company has received permission from the EU Commission to do so.
It’s a French company called Ynsect. This company is known as a world leader in making natural insect-based fertilizers and proteins.
The company started in 2011 in Paris, France, and was founded by scientists and environmental activists.
They have been recognized for their efforts with certifications like Next40 and B Corp.
Ynsect has three production sites– one in Dole, France (started in 2016), one in the Netherlands (since 2017), and one in the United States (since 2022).
They’re also building a massive vertical farm in Amiens, France, which will be the biggest one of its kind in the world.
So, thanks to this new EU regulation, we might soon have minor mealworm larvae and their products available for us to try in various foods.
Are you worried about accidentally eating mealworms while visiting Europe? Don’t worry; they have to be labeled as such.
The EU also limits insect content in baked goods to 10-15%, so don’t worry about unknowingly eating insects on your pastry on your European vacation.
What Does Mealworm Approval in the UK Mean for Americans?
The US doesn’t have any specific set of standards for foods.
In the UK, foods are considered dangerous or unhealthy until proven otherwise, while in the US, it’s the opposite.
So for Americans, it’s a wise decision to keep up with foreign standards, especially regarding new foods and drugs.
What Does The US Say About Eating Mealworms?
The FDA does not have a regulatory framework in place.
However, they said that edible insects are considered food so long as they are “specifically raised to be used for food or as components in food.”
It doesn’t appear that the US requires labeling of mealworms right now.
And research has shown that products that are labeled to contain mealworms are eaten considerably less.
What you may not know, though, is that US foods are allowed a maximum amount of bug parts or “food defects” already.
The FDA says, “It is economically impractical to grow, harvest, or process raw products that are totally free of non-hazardous, naturally occurring, unavoidable defect.”
We’ll cover these food defect limits in a section below titled “Bugs and Food Defects Are Already in Our Food (And Legal Limits)”
But don’t worry about food manufacturers sneakily using mealworms as a way to cut down on costs, at least not yet.
Right now, a pound of mealworm powder is $25 to $50. Yes, it’s not a cheap substitute.
What Are Mealworms?
Mealworms are not their own separate animal species or even true worms.
Instead, they are the second stage in the lifecycle of a beetle.
Specifically, mealworms are the larval form of the mealworm beetle known as Tenebrio molitor, which belongs to the darkling beetle family.
These fascinating creatures, like many other insects, go through a process called “holometabolism,” which consists of four distinct life stages: egg, larva, pupa, and adult.
The mealworm beetle can be found worldwide, and it prefers to make its home in dark and moist environments.
It all begins with a small egg, which hatches into a tiny yellow-brown larva after a couple of weeks.
This larva is what we commonly refer to as a mealworm.
During the next two to two and a half months, these mealworms spend their time eating voraciously and preparing for their upcoming transformation.
As time passes, they change remarkably and eventually emerge as fully developed beetles, complete with wings, legs, and a dark outer shell.
What Do Mealworms Eat?
We should always strive to know what’s in our food and what our food once ate.
That’s why we have “antibiotic-free,” “GMO-free,” “pasture-raised,” and “no-added-hormones” labels.
We would also like to ask if cattle were grass or grain-finished, if chickens were fed soy, and if pigs were offered alcohol to reduce their cortisol levels and tenderize the pork.
For mealworms, their diets usually consist of leaves, grains, grain products, organic and non-organic decaying matter, animal waste, leftover garden vegetables, and other dead insects.
Actually, you’ve probably already seen headlines about mealworms in our foods, just not on purpose.
Mealworms are notorious for breaking into cereal, grain, and other dry goods.
Even properly packaged and sealed foods, especially those in thin plastic or cardboard, are susceptible to mealworms chewing their way in.
If you’re squeamish about sharing your food with mealworms or accidentally eating the mealworms, look for small circular holes in the packaging.
I have not been successful in finding any regulations or specialized diets that mealworms should consume when they are intended for human consumption.
Are Mealworms Eco-Friendly?
Mealworms play massively critical roles in nature.
They live in dark, damp, and moldy environments.
Here, they aid in decomposition and are a large portion of birds’ diets, both wild and domesticated.
Many chicken keepers also raise mealworms as a way to supplement their feed bill.
Mealworms are also largely consumed by rodents, reptiles, and sometimes larger mammals like bears.
An amazing fact about mealworms that I don’t think we talk about enough is their ability to break down plastics like polystyrene.
Mealworms could be our way to fight microplastics.
As for human consumption, they are incredibly efficient food sources.
One serving of mealworm is 55% protein, contains all of the essential amino acids and fatty acids people need, and even has more iron than sirloin beef.
Mealworms also require 2,000 fewer gallons of water than beef.
They also need at least 80% less land than cattle too.
For households, they are much more accessible since you can start a mealworm farm in less than one square foot of space (and inside your house or apartment, at that).
So What Do Mealworms Taste Like?
80% of the world’s population, mostly tropical areas, already includes insects in their daily diet, so mealworms are not a new concept.
Still, they are mostly uncharted territory in the US and are not as commonly found.
The culinary potential of mealworms is vast, making them an exciting “new” ingredient for innovative recipes.
They have a mild, nutty flavor that complements various dishes.
Mealworms can be used in sweet and savory creations, adding a unique twist to traditional meals.
From protein-rich smoothies and energy bars to flavorful stir-fries and salads, mealworms offer a chance to explore diverse and tasty culinary experiences.
While I am impressed with mealworms’ versatility and eco-friendly properties, I have yet to eat one.
Don’t take it personally, mealworms; I also feel the same squeamishness around shrimp, snails, oysters, and lobsters.
I am willing to try out mealworm flour because once that bug-like texture is removed, I’m happy to test it.
And hey, at more than 50% protein by weight, which is double the protein of beef, it seems like it could make a fantastic all-natural protein powder.
Since I haven’t eaten raw or roasted whole mealworms myself, I’ll share others’ experiences here.
“Ready-to-eat, oven-dried, and crispy mealworms have a discreet umami taste that leaves a light, nutty aftertaste. Eat them as snacks or use them as an ingredient when cooking. They go well with more or less everything.
We highly recommend trying mealworms from different producers because their taste depends on the feed they eat. Depending on their diet during their last 2-3 days, the taste of mealworms can differ from slightly unpleasant to very delicious!”
The Party Bugs team also says they were not fond of mealworms the first time they tried them in 2018. They said the flavor was mild but had an unpleasant aftertaste that lasted for hours.
Full disclosure, though.
Party Bugs is a business that developed mealworms to taste better and now sells them in several flavors.
Andrew Gray of the AmericasRestaurant.com
Andrew says they taste nutty and rich, with an inconspicuous umami flavor.
Overall, the taste is light and subtle, making them ideal for adding other flavorings or seasonings or using them as a crunchy garnish that won’t overpower any dish they’re added to.
They also hold up well to roasting and deep-frying, so they’re versatile if nothing else.
Meanwhile, The Guardian says mealworms have a meat-like flavoring and can be savory if prepared correctly.
When mealworms are cooked alongside sugars, they carmelize in different ways to create new, unique flavors that smell like meat.
Overcoming the Icky Factor of Eating Mealworms
One of the primary challenges in introducing mealworms as a food source is overcoming the psychological barrier of consuming insects.
However, as we become more aware of the environmental impact of our dietary choices, our attitudes toward alternative proteins are shifting.
Education about the nutritional benefits and sustainable aspects of mealworms can help change perceptions and encourage people to embrace this exciting food option.
Personally, I think it’s best to start with foods that include mealworms but not the original texture and then get more adventurous as I grow accustomed to them.
Bugs and Food Defects Are Already in Our Food (And Legal Limits)
Do you know that the FDA allows limited amounts of bugs, rodents, rodent hair, and poop in our foods?
Before you say, “Ew!” here are some examples of each, which come from this CBS News article.
- 4-6% of your coffee beans can contain insects or mold. Coffee also has an average of ten milligrams of animal poop per pound.
- Having one rodent hair and thirty insect fragments per every 3.5 ounces of peanut butter is permissible.
- Tomato juice can have four maggots and twenty or more fruit fly eggs for every fourteen ounces.
- It’s legal for spaghetti to have 450 insect parts and nine rodent hairs in every sixteen-ounce box.
- Frozen and canned spinach can have fifty aphids, mites, or thrips.
- 10 grams of paprika may be up to 20% mold, with eleven rodent hairs and seventy-five insect parts.
The reason why these “additives” are allowed is because they are nearly avoidable in large manufacturing plants, and they are not harmful.
They do not lead to foodborne illness (like salmonella, E. coli, or listeria), so they are generally okay in limited quantities.
Final Thoughts on Eating Mealworms
Mealworms for human consumption represent a promising solution to the most significant challenges facing our food system today.
As we strive for a sustainable and resilient future, incorporating these nutritious insects into our diets may be the key to balancing environmental concerns with our nutritional needs.
With their abundance of essential nutrients, minimal environmental impact, and culinary versatility, mealworms are poised to revolutionize how we view and experience food– all while bettering our planet.
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