From Pests to Protein

Bugs... they get a bad rap.

Some bite. Some sting. Some stink.

But what if they could be considered beyond their pesky traits? What if certain insects could actually benefit the health of humans, of animals, of the entire planet?

Virginia Tech scientists think so, and they have the research to prove it.

Faculty at the Virginia Seafood Agricultural Research and Extension Center are testing – and eating – certain insects to develop alternative and sustainable food sources to support a world population forecasted to reach 10 billion by 2050.

Some of the insects, seven, in their lab so far, are edible on their own. Others are being converted to proteins that are rich in nutrients and antioxidants and incorporated into bars and cookies. And the bugs aren’t just for human consumption. Some of the insects are being used in animal feed, as well.

Beyond its nutritional value, the consumption of bugs is also a boost for the economy and Mother Nature, explained Reza Ovissipour, an assistant professor in the Virginia Tech Department of Food Science and Technology and Virginia Cooperative Extension specialist.

“Blending our current agricultural practices with insect-based protein will increase the food supply to meet demand while reducing pressure on natural resources,” he said. “Eating bugs is good for the Earth. It is good for the environment, and it is good for your health.”

Barbecue-flavored bugs?

Ovissipour began the insect protein project in 2018, inspired by a problem that had been bugging him for some time.

“Many agricultural byproducts have high value, and they are being thrown away. Not only are they not being used, but they are also being added to the environment and causing environmental issues,” he eplained.

In Ovissipour’s lab, these valuable by-products aren’t treated as waste, but rather, as insect feed.

“We are using different types of agricultural waste materials, which are really rich in proteins, fibers, and carbohydrates, to feed our insects,” he said.

Loud and annoying with their buzzes and clicks, two of the most common insects used are black soldier flies and crickets.

Using fermentation and different bioprocessing methods, the insects are eventually converted to protein with high nutritional and medicinal value. Research suggests this source of protein may mitigate several health problems, including hypertension, Ovissipour said.

Once the protein is created, it is extracted and mixed with different ingredients to produce certain food items, such as cookies and protein bars with endless flavor possibilities. Some are savory. Some sweet. Popular among Ovissipour’s team: barbecue.

Ovissipour compared the process to that of brewing beer: yeast converts glucose to create a value-added beverage.

Also in his lab are bugs such as cicadas, silkworms and scorpions that are edible on their own. Their taste isn’t preferred by everyone, but neither is the taste of seafood, beef, or poultry, Ovissipour pointed out.

The research team has been working with large companies and insect producers across the United States to put the products on the market.

Some, such as crickets, silkworms, scorpions, meal worms, sago worm, and Junebug, are already on store shelves, Ovissipour said, so bee on the lookout.

From the lab to the table

Beyond insect harvesting, Ovissipour’s team is also using similar research methods to create cultivated meat: animal cells grown in vitro to form anything from chicken tenders to salmon fillets.

This effort is an additional attempt to keep pace with the growing demand for food and meat, he said.

“Compounded with diminishing land and water resources and an accelerating climate crisis, new technologies that maximize resource efficiency and minimize waste are needed to feed an increasingly hungry world,” Ovissipour said.

Whether a fish fillet, a beef patty, or a chicken nugget, everything begins with cells — the basic building blocks of organisms.

“In our lab, we’re focused on stem cells from aquatic species to create seafood products,” explained Lexi Duscher, a postdoctoral researcher at the Virginia Seafood AREC who is working in Ovissipour’s lab.

Using fish stem cells, which can be ethically collected from live animals, Duscher will differentiate cells to selectively grow muscle and fat cells — the same cells and tissues that make up the fish fillets you can buy at the store. The cells, grown in specialized media in the lab, will then be assembled into a fish fillet.

Using animal stem cells and plant-based media, lab technicians can differentiate cells and grow muscle and fat cell types that can then be assembled into a final meat product. Mimicking a fish fillet using cell culture then requires structural engineering at the microscopic level.

“There are different ways to form the final meat product, but our lab will be focused on 3D bioprinting as well as scaffolding with plant-based and sustainable materials to achieve that delicious, flavorful meat texture,” Duscher said.


A collaborative effort

As new technologies continue to emerge for producing alternative food sources, such as smart agriculture and airborne agriculture, it is important to remind producers and consumers that these methods are not competing with traditional agricultural processes.

“We are just trying to introduce another option and we are trying to help farmers and growers be more sustainable and profitable,” Ovissipour said.

“For example, insect farming is going to help farmers and agricultural communities because they can use insects to convert their byproduct to value-added products - products they can add to the soil as a fertilizer to enhance soil quality. They can also be fed to their chickens, their cattle, their swine, and their seafood.”

Ovissipour is excited to see insects share the shelves with some other protein-packed favorites, like a juicy fillet of beef or chicken breast.

“When I go to the grocery store, I have these options, and they are all good sources of protein. They are good for your health, and they are tasty,” Ovissipour said. “My hope is that edible insects and insect protein products will soon become an option, too.”