Praise the Worm

I will never forget my first encounter with mealworms. I was six years old, had just received my first pet Green anole, Anolis carolinensis, and feeding time had come. I grabbed its food container and popped it open for the first time. I was immediately confronted with a writhing mass of brown-segmented, vermiform bodies. These were the larvae of Tenebrio molitor the yellow mealworm beetle, usually simply referred to as mealworms. I had never been more repulsed in my young life. I was so horrified and disgusted I cried at the thought of even having to touch them. An adult household member eventually agreed to feed the lizard for me, and each time I received a stern lecture on responsibility. I felt ashamed but at least I didn’t have to touch those damn things. In time, I became more accustomed to them as I watched the Anole feed on them. However, it would be about a decade before I would even consider handling them without tongs. Oh, how my attitude towards them has since changed.

Beyond their intrinsic value as components of the biosphere, mealworms could be utilized to address environmental issues confronting us today by mitigate one of the most important concerns facing us; the growing populace’s increasing need for production of protein-rich food in a sustainable manner. Due to their nutritional content and relatively low environmental impact compared to agriculturally produced meat, mealworms may be a logical food source.  In studies that have compared the nutritional profile of mealworms to conventional meats, mealworms had a significantly higher nutritional value than beef and chicken, and provide all essential amino acids (Grau et al 2019). The protein content (13.7-22.3%) is comparable to ratios reported for beef, chicken, and pork.  Furthermore, mealworms are higher in fat (8.9-24%) and overall energy content. Another work ( Ravzanaadii  et al 2012) actually reported higher protein content and indicated the exuvia and excreta produced by the larvae can be utilized as a food source as they contain 33% and 19% protein respectively. In light of that, mealworms could also be used to provide nutrition to those with an aversion to killing them.

As availability of land is considered the most significant limiting factor in producing protein to feed the human population, it is further elucidated as to why mealworms deserve serious consideration as a meat alternative; they require less land than required for production of milk, poultry, chicken, and, especially beef. With current methods, mealworm production require 10% of the land utilized for that of beef (Oonincx and de Boer 2012). In evaluating overall global warming potential (GWP) production of milk, pork, and chicken was about 1.8 to 3.8 times greater than mealworms. Beef production by itself is 6 to 13 times greater than mealworm production (Oonincx and de Boer 2012). With genetic optimization and other methodological refinements, it can be reasonably expected that, along with increased production efficiency, environmental impacts of mealworm culture will be further reduced. 

When I am a serious proponent of a solution or an action, I am not content to merely talk about it, as is the case of my discussion of insects as a more sustainable meat alternative. This is part of the reason I began to explore insects as a dietary option. I admit, once I began engaging in entomophagy, mealworms were one of the last items I wanted to try, as I still carried a fair bit of that childhood revulsion towards them. The thought of eating them would have probably fractured the psyche of my six-year old self. One day, I resolved to do it: I filled the bottom of a bowl with dead mealworms, added just enough mirin, to wet them, threw in a few drops of coconut aminos, and microwaved it all just to the point that the mirin evaporated. I spent several moments working up the courage to put the things in my mouth, and I did, and it was excellent. I found the taste so enjoyable it totally overrode all prior aversions I had. In fact, I liked them so much that I consume them as part of at least one meal each day. I get creative with them to, using them as the filling of deserts, components of baked goods or pizza toppings.

With those caveats, I hope readers will seriously consider mealworms and other insects as a dietary option and support producers. If you do decide to try mealworms, please only use those cultured for human consumption. Please do not go out and eat raw mealworms, those from a pet store, or any that have been anywhere near other animals. Also, I don’t think it is advisable to eat larvae that have been munching on styrofoam. Anyhow, if they don’t wet your appetite, I hope you keep an open mind towards those who do wish to partake.

  Grau, Thorben & Vilcinskas, Andreas & Joop, G.. (2017). Sustainable farming of the mealworm Tenebrio molitor for the production of food and feed. Zeitschrift fur Naturforschung C. 72. 10.1515/znc-2017-0033.    

Oonincx DGAB, de Boer IJM (2012) Environmental Impact of the Production of Mealworms as a Protein Source for Humans – A Life Cycle Assessment. PLoS ONE 7(12): e51145.  
Ravzanaadii, N., Kim, S. H., Choi, W. H., Hong, S. J., & Kim, N. J. (2012). Nutritional value of mealworm, Tenebrio molitor as food source. International Journal of Industrial Entomology, 25(1), 93-98.   

Yang, Y., Yang, J., Wu, W. M., Zhao, J., Song, Y., Gao, L., … & Jiang, L. (2015). Biodegradation and mineralization of polystyrene by plastic-eating mealworms: Part 1. Chemical and physical characterization and isotopic tests. Environmental science & technology, 49(20), 12080-12086.