There’s been a lot of noise about eating insects, but is cockroach milk taking it too far?
It’s been clickbait gold for media outlets around the world, eager to announce that we soon could be gulping down beverages made by one of nature's least appetising creepy crawlies.
But are we really that desperate for another alternative milk?
Protein punch but production issues
For a start, cockroach milk is a bit of a misleading term. It’s actually crystals secreted from the critter to feed its 50 or so hatchlings. But these crystals could be manufactured into milk and also offer nutritional benefits to humans as well, particularly due to their high-protein content, according to researchers from the Institute for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine in India.
“The crystals are like a complete food – they have proteins, fats and sugars. If you look into the protein sequences, they have all the essential amino acids,” Sanchari Banerjee, one of the main researchers, told the Times of India.
There could also be added benefits with the non-dairy alternative still tasting a lot like cow’s milk, while it also has four times the energy content of cow’s milk.
But production could certainly be an issue, as it would not only take an army of cockroaches to yield enough milk, but it’s reported that the animals also die in the process of extracting the fluid.
In fact, to get 100ml (or a cup) of cockroach milk, more than 1,000 mother cockroaches would have to be harvested.
It seems scientists are determined to interfere with the way we consume milk wherever they can.
Over in Australia, broccoli lattes are on the experiment table after government science agency CSIRO and agriculture group Hort Innovation turned the green vegetable into a powder version that can be stirred into smoothies, baked goods and coffee.
The researchers took bunches of broccoli deemed too ugly in appearance to be stocked in supermarkets to create the powder, with two tablespoons containing one serve of broccoli, and a good source of fibre, vitamin B6, vitamin E and manganese.
The powder is produced using a combination of selected pre-treatment and drying processes to retain the natural colour, flavour and nutrient composition of fresh broccoli.
Hort Innovation chief executive John Lloyd said there is a rising trend in healthy eating across the board and Australian growers are always looking at ways to diversify their products and cut waste while meeting consumer demand.
The powder and a range of snacks are being developed as part of a research project that aims to reduce food waste.
Potential commercial applications are also being discussed with growers in Australia.
The lead researcher, CSIRO's Mary Ann Augustin, noted that broccoli was high in protein, fibre and health-promoting bioactive phytochemicals, making it an ideal candidate for powder development.
"The powders are an option for farmers who want to produce value-added vegetable ingredients for the lucrative functional food markets," Dr Augustin said.
"The broccoli powder has already been used for the production of extruded snacks with high vegetable content.”
Insect ice cream
But back to cockroach milk. The thing is insect milk isn’t a new idea.
Cape Town company Gourmet Grubb are using entomilk – a milk alternative made from insects – to make ice cream.
“Eating insects as is or in powdered form is a tad boring to start off with,” according to Gourmet Grubb’s website.
The ice cream comes in three flavours – peanut butter, chocolate and chai – and the milk is made from sustainably farmed black soldier fly larvae, which is significantly more environmentally friendly than the traditional farming of dairy cows, said the company. The milk is also said to be rich, creamy and high in nutrients, including iron, zinc and calcium.
“By challenging the way people perceive insects, we can move away from the ‘novelty food’ aspects of insect-based foods and start integrating insects into our daily diets. We started with our unique ice cream in order to showcase the versatility and deliciousness of entomilk,” the company said.
So could we see Sparkie sipping on some cockroach milk?
It has been over two years since the first articles on cockroach milk, and from the ones I have read more recently very little has changed. The product itself does have some interesting characteristics as a calorically dense nutritional supplement – potentially a complete meal replacement.
The titles are slightly misleading in that although found in the ‘milk’ of this species of cockroach, it's the dense crystals of protein and fats that the researchers are interested in. Their hope is that they can produce these crystals en masse through genetically engineered bacteria – similar to how xanthan gum is produced – as the direct harvest would be incredibly difficult.
The concern is that none of the recent articles have reported any progress with the technology, so while interesting, nothing it going to happen until the genetic modification happens that would allow for the mass production. After that. it has to go through extensive safety and ethical approvals before it can be made into a saleable product, so ultimately even if the replication was successful tomorrow, it has years worth of work ahead of it to make it viable.