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How healthy and nutritious are insects?

Currently, alternative protein sources are in focus and insects in particular. The nutrient contents of insects have been mapped. However, we still need to investigate several factors when considering insects as human nutrition, including how the nutrients from insects are absorbed, and how they affect our satiety. These are some of the questions that Sofie Kaas Ovesen will try to answer during her Ph.D. study at Department of Food Science, Aarhus University.

[Translate to English:] Kan vi udskifte de proteinkilder, vi kender og bruger i dag med insektprotein, og hvad dette vil betyde for vores krop og metabolisme? Det undersøges i et nyt ph.d.-studie. Foto: Teknologisk Institut
[Translate to English:] Kan vi udskifte de proteinkilder, vi kender og bruger i dag med insektprotein, og hvad dette vil betyde for vores krop og metabolisme? Det undersøges i et nyt ph.d.-studie. Foto: Teknologisk Institut

Protein from insects for human nutrition holds significant potentials. Partly because it requires less space, water and energy than normal livestock production, and partly because protein production from insects, from an ethical point of view, may be more acceptable to consumers who would otherwise choose plant protein.  

 Sofie Kaas Ovesen explains:

 - Insect protein may constitute a compromise between plant protein and traditional protein from meat. Insect protein is of a high quality and considering amino acids and composition, it bears a close resemblance to meat protein; however insect protein production does not cause the same extent of environmental impact that livestock production does.

 Sofie Kaas Ovesen’s supervisor is Professor Hanne Christine S. Bertram, Department of Food Science. In 2017, Hanne Bertram was awarded the Elite Research Prize for her efforts in relation to developing the metabolomics technique – an advanced method for studying food metabolism in the human body.

 During her Ph.D project, Sofie Kaas Ovesen will examine whether it is possible to replace the dietary protein sources which we know and use today by insect protein as well as its implications to our body and metabolism.

 Previous studies show that insect protein resembles meat protein regarding amino acid composition.

 Sofie Kaas Ovesen explains:

 - Meat protein has a highly attractive amino acid composition with a good balance of essential amino acids. Thus, meat is an excellent protein source, and we may expect the same from insect protein. Preliminary studies performed at Section for Sport Science indicate, however, that insect protein is absorbed more slowly than typical animal protein sources, such as whey protein from milk.  

 Focus on satiety and bioavailability
The Ph.D study consists of different elements; one element is a rat study in collaboration with the University of Copenhagen, during which rats are fed solely with sausages; sausages in which meat protein has been partly replaced by grinded meal worms, and traditional pork sausages, respectively.

 Subsequently, feces and blood samples are taken from the rats, and the samples are analyzed the metabolomics technique. The metabolomics technique will help us measure a considerable number of metabolites, thus revealing how the rat diet has been absorbed and metabolized. This will allow us to examine if and how the insects affect the rats’ metabolism.

 The slow absorption of insect protein is interesting as this indicates that it may result in a  prolonged feeling of satiety. This will be tested in the second part of the study – a human study focusing on satiety. The actual experimental design has not yet been decided, but it might include the use of grinded insects baked buns.

 - In the study, we focus on the nutritional aspect. Humans have eaten insects for thousands of years, but only few studies have examined the implications of eating insects. We know which amino acids, vitamins and minerals that the insects contain, but the absorption of these in the body, i.e. the bioavailability is rather interesting. A previous study demonstrated that amino acids from insects are absorbed more slowly, and we want to test this further in a human study, says Sofie Kaas Ovesen.

 - Proteins may possess many different nutritional properties – for instance, some protein sources are especially good at muscle building, and some protein sources are excellent when it comes to ensuring satiety. If we can generate knowledge on how to make the best strategic use of the nutritional properties of insect protein, we have come a long way, says Hanne Christine Bertram.


 The PhD study is scheduled to end in the autumn of 2021. One third of the PhD position is financed by iFOOD - Aarhus University Centre for Innovative Food Research. The interdisciplinary PhD study is carried out in collaboration with the Section for Sport Science at Department of Public Health, and Associate Professor Mette Hansen is co-supervisor. Another collaboration partner is The Technological Institute.

For further information: Contact: Sofie Kaas Ovesen, sofiekaasovesen@food.au.dk