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Mealworms: A Healthy, Enviro-Friendly, Delicious Source Of Protein

Cooked mealworms and crickets

Now that the holidays are over, many of us are thinking about our diet and all those cookies and turkey legs we consumed. I’m surrounded by Tupperware full of ham, bacon cheese potatoes, and three meat lasagna, wondering what I was thinking when I decided to eat meat again. It’s not only that I am in desperate need of a green smoothie detox – I also feel guilty thinking about the ridiculous carbon footprint that comes with all this meat.

Apparently there are new, viable alternatives on the horizon, for the adventurous. According to a new study published in PLoS ONE, the mealworm and the superworm are healthy, palatable alternatives to pork, chicken, and beef.

More than two-thirds of all agricultural land is used for animal production, whether it’s animal housing or growing feed crops for animals. The entire process of the meat and dairy industry accounts for 15% of all human-generated greenhouse gases, which is why some climate researchers and scientists recommend a higher percentage plant-based diet to help curb these emissions.

That sounds great in theory, and meat consumption has been on a gradual decline in recent years, but it’s unlikely the majority of developed nation residents are not going to give up animal products. This is where the worm idea comes in – it’s a less expensive, more environmentally friendly way to keep animal protein on the menu.

Mealworms are available freeze-dried, canned, or live for human consumption, and can be easily added to baked goods, deep fried with potatoes, or if you’re gutsy, simply roasting with some salt and pepper for a protein snack. Tempted yet?

According to Dennis Oonincx of the Department of Plant Scientists, mealworms required only one tenth the amount of land required to produce the same amount of protein from beef. One kilogram of mealworm only generated about 2.7 kilograms of CO2 equivalent in greenhouse gas, considerably less than standard livestock. All they needed to survive was a diet of carrots and mixed grains, as well as cages, water, recycled cardboard egg trays, and a climate-controlled rearing station that runs off natural gas and electricity.

42% of the mealworms’ emissions came from producing and transporting grain feed; 26% came from the heating gas; 17% from electricity, and 14% from the production and transportation of carrots.

The most notable factor in regard to mealworm production is that there is a very small land demand compared to other livestock. “Since the population of our planet keeps growing, and the amount of land on the earth is limited, a more efficient, and more sustainable system of food production is needed,” said Oonincx. “Now, for the first time, it has been shown that mealworms, and possibly other edible insects, can aid in achieving such a system.”

It might be a while before you’re ready to replace your holiday ham with some ground mealworms, but the research going into it does sound like it has the potential to create an affordable protein source that is easy to turn into tasty meal.

Would you eat mealworms, or do you prefer to save it for the bottom of a tequila bottle?

Image CC licensed by Hans Splinter: Cooked mealworms and crickets

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