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Mealworms: An Unexpected Way to Nourish Communities Around the World

MealFlour, a Sustainable Urban Communities Solver, teaches communities in Guatemala how to farm mealworms and use protein-packed mealflour to boost nutrition in everyday foods. Watch Co-Founder Elizabeth Frank pitch MealFlour’s solution on stage during Solve at MIT in May, 2018.

The Future of Food

For centuries, people in 80 percent of the world, including Thailand, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Mexico, have eaten insects as part of their normal diet—bamboo worms, mopane caterpillars, and crickets to name a few. To North Americans, it seems exotic—and perhaps unappetizing—but eating insects may become more mainstream. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) touts insects as an environmentally sustainable way to feed a growing population and address malnutrition, and they could be the world’s answer to food security. In short, bugs could be the “future of food” for all.

According to the FAO, one of the most promising species is a common critter we’re often dismayed to find in our cabinets: the mealworm. Mealworms are packed with important nutrients and protein, and they’re much more environmentally sustainable than meat. A serving of mealworm powder is 55 percent protein, contains all essential amino and fatty acids, and has more iron than sirloin beef. 

But compared to beef, mealworms require 2,000 fewer gallons of water and use less than 20 percent of the land needed to produce the same quantity of edible protein. While livestock need a farm or ranch to live and grow, mealworms only need a square-foot box in the corner of a room.

With all of these benefits, it is clear that environmentally friendly mealworms could help feed the world’s growing global population while reducing malnutrition.

Bringing Insects to Market—For All

In the past several years, commercial edible insect companies have emerged in Canada, the Netherlands, the US, and elsewhere. These companies use insects to create protein powders for both home-cooks and snack manufacturers, and conscientious consumers can now buy insects—mainly crickets—in protein bars, chips, and baked goods. However, because it is still a relatively new market, the retail prices are steep. Insect-based protein bars range from $3 to $4 and a pound of cricket or mealworm powder sells for $25 to $50.

The rise of these commercial insect products is slowly breaking down the stigma of eating “icky” bugs. However, despite the growing industrial production of edible insects, the prohibitive cost of these products is largely leaving malnourished populations behind. If bugs are going to be the future of food, all people must have affordable access.

This is what inspired us to start MealFlour. Edible insects like mealworms have the potential to empower communities to produce their own protein and lead healthier lives—without relying on donated manufactured supplements. To validate this concept, we partner with local organizations to teach community leaders how to farm mealworms, so they can then teach their neighbors, friends, and families how to set up their own farms.

“In our Guatemala, malnutrition is a serious problem because kids don’t eat healthy food, only junk food from the street stores—processed food from the city, that isn’t made well. It’s all dirty, whereas the food we prepare at home, the banana pancakes with MealFlour, are healthier for our children.”
-Doña Irma, one of the first customers in the MealFlour program

Edible insects can live up to their potential as the “food of the future.” We just need to ensure that all people have access to them and all their healthy benefits.

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Sustainable Urban Communities

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