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The energy content of edible insects is similar to traditional fresh meat – around 500 calories for every 100g of dried product. In comparison with livestock rearing, which is an intensive user of valuable resources including water, power, and land, insect farming is considered a contributing factor to circular ecological system. Insects have an excellent protein density (between 45 and 65% protein by mass) and are easy to breed and rear, using far less resources than other agricultural meat-rearing practices.
Thanks to their high efficiency with which they can convert organic waste, insects are rapidly demonstrating their potential to fill the “protein gap”. With only 2kg of feed (food waste), and a mere 1 square metre of space, farmed insects can produce up to 1kg of protein. This makes them the future of sustainable and efficient farming.
Edible insects for aquafeed, animal feed and pet food
A key sector that has already embraced the potential for insect protein is aquaculture – fish farming. Protein derived from insects is a near-analoge for fishmeal protein that has traditionally been used as the base for commercial fish feed. Because consumers increasingly demand sustainable and natural methods of agriculture and insects are part of natural fish diet, these proteins make the perfect aquaculture feed.
Insect protein for use in agricultural animal feed
Insect protein for use in agricultural animal feed (livestock feed) is being considered as a potential alternative and more sustainable solution. Following the relaxation in EU law on insect protein in fish feed, EU law on feed for pig and poultry is to follow in 2021. However, insect oil – which is classed as an animal fat – can already be added to pig and poultry feed, providing massive benefits for both livestock and the environment, as most pig feeds currently use controversial palm oil.
Insect protein as an alternative nutritious ingredient for pet food and snacks is on the rise as well. For example, black soldier fly larvae are being used in pet food, offering a sustainable product that delivers protein, fats and oils required for excellent pet health and growth. The high-absorbency of insect protein makes it particularly useful as a base for pet food for animals with allergies and sensitive stomachs.
Black Soldier Fly larvae
There is particular interest in black soldier flies, because these can be fed with organic waste materials from other agricultural processes. They are very efficient at processing this material, extracting up to 70% of proteins from such waste. This makes them a highly sustainable option for animal feed.
Crickets are becoming an increasingly popular choice for conversion into protein-rich powders. Specialist companies are already selling high-energy products based on cricket powder targeted at the athletic market. So-called “cricket flour” can be used to make a whole range of tasty products, including cricket burgers, cookies, pancakes and more.
Previously produced commercially for use as fishing bait and pet reptile feed, mealworms are increasingly being raised for human consumption as an alternative source of protein. They require only 10% of the land required for chickens, pigs or cattle and produce far less greenhouse gases.
House fly larvae
Another insect that is able to convert organic wastes to high value protein is larvae of house fly. House fly larvae is similar to black soldier fly, whose pre-pupa larvae is widely used for animal feed production. Depending on the rearing substrates, house fly larvae is considered to have 40% to 60% crude protein, making it an alternative protein source for aquafeed.
Insect farming and processing of insect meal, oil and frass
Large-scale insect farming requires systematic optimization of farming process, involving farming equipment and sensors and rearing and harvesting management software. This determines the life cycle, quality and output of insect farming for commercial production. Typical insect processing include two stages, separation & extraction and drying & milling. Processing insects can be challenging as they are temperature sensitive and difficult to handle in wet feed because of poor flow characteristics and cohesive tendency.
The drying phase, in particular, is vital for producing the maximum levels of high quality protein from your insect processing line. If the insects are under-dried, moulds or bacteria may grow. And over-drying can cause scorching and reducing the nutritional value and quality of the protein powder. Two main types of dryer are used: Direct and Indirect drying. Direct drying occurs when very hot air at a temperature of 200-300 ºC is passed over the material as it is passed to the heat exchange unit. This is the quicker method, but heat damage is much more likely if the process is not carefully controlled. With indirect drying energy is supplied through a heating medium, for example a cylinder containing steam heated discs which also tumble the material.
The last step in the process is milling or grinding the carefully dried material into the appropriate grade of powder for the intended use. For protein to be used as an ingredient in soluble products such as protein drink powders a much finer mill may be required compared to insect “flours” to be used in baking and food recipes. If the final use is to be animal feed then a courser grade may be appropriate. Choosing a combined drying and milling solution can give you the edge in terms of efficiency and ROI.