Tortillas made with minced mealworm larvae, which plague stored wheat products, are excellent sources of protein and essential fatty acids, a new study finds, reports Nature this week.
Larvae have nearly as high a proportion of protein as meat, says Ana Barba de la Rosa, a molecular biologist at the Technological Institute of Celaya in Mexico and a member of the team that performed the study.
Twenty volunteers were enthusiastic about the taste of cornmeal tortillas supplemented with ground larvae, Barba de la Rosa says. "They were much better than normal tortillas," she says. "It seems that the fatty acids from the insects gave them extra flavour."
Yellow mealworms (Tenebrio molitor), polished beetles about half an inch long, lay sticky eggs in flour and cereals. The larvae that emerge to feed on the grains can halve wheat production in developing countries.
But the pests could be a blessing in disguise, Barba de la Rosa suggests. "Maybe you can turn these insects into food," she told Nature.
The larvae could be an important source of protein in poor Mexican communities, she proposes. Integrating the larvae into tortillas, the main staple, instead of eating them directly, should get rid of the 'ugh!' factor, she hopes.
Using insects as protein supplements could be feasible if people were willing to accept them, says David Thurnham at the University of Ulster in Northern Ireland, who studies nutrition in the developing world. "It might be possible, particularly in a poor culture where there are not a lot of choices of high-quality protein."
Commercial tortilla-makers are unlikely to be putting bugs in their products any time soon, says Louis Guerra, marketing director of Rudy's Tortillas based in Dallas, Texas. "I don't see how you'd market a product with a bug in it of any kind."