Insect-based pet food — The right choice for your pet?

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

insect based pet food

Story at-a-glance -

  • Insect-based pet food, while not yet approved in the U.S., is making its way to store shelves in Europe
  • The benefits of insects as an ingredient in pet food include protein content, novelty as a protein source and environmental sustainability
  • Potential drawbacks include lack of scientific research to determine the long-term effects of feeding insect-based pet food, and lack of consumer interest
  • Another drawback is that the inclusion of insects doesn’t resolve the many problems with processed pet diets

If you pay attention to innovations in pet food, you may already be familiar with insect-based pet food. As of this writing, insect protein isn't yet approved for inclusion in "complete and balanced" commercial pet diets in the U.S.

However, insect-based treats are making their way into the marketplace here (since they're not considered a source of complete nutrition, they don't have to comply with all AAFCO regulations), and insect-based pet foods are being introduced in the U.K., France, Germany and Italy.1

For those of you thinking, "Insects in my pet's food? Yuck," it's important to note that processed pet food made with insects looks exactly like the dog or cat food (or treats) you're used to. Some of the insects currently been used in pet food and treats in other countries include the black soldier fly, crickets and mealworms.

Potential benefits of insect-based pet foods

Insects are a protein source — Depending on the species, insects can be a good to great source of not only protein, but also fat, fatty acids, vitamins and minerals. Importantly, the amino acid profile of insects can be more complete than that of vegetable protein — again, depending on the species. From the 2016 book "Insects as Sustainable Food Ingredients: Production, Processing and Food Applications:"

"The use of insects in animal feed has been mainly focused on their value as a protein source. Studies of insect protein values indicated that most species had high protein quantities (Ladrón de Guevara et al., 1995; Ramos-Elorduy et al., 1981, 1982, 1984, 1997) and quality.

Moreover, the protein included essential amino acids, such as lysine, methionine, and leucine, which are limited in protein sources of vegetal origin (Hall, 1992). Insect meal has protein levels and amino acid profiles that are better than soy meal, and it is even similar to fish meal in some species (Sánchez-Muros et al., 2014). Nevertheless, amino acid profiles vary among species (see Chapter 3)."2

And from a 2019 report published in the journal Foods:

"Insects have been proven to have high nutritional value, especially the protein fraction in terms of adequate amino acid composition [12]. The amino acid composition in the larvae of yellow mealworm (Tenebrio molitor) is particularly favorable [13].

A study investigating four insects commonly eaten in Nigeria (African palm weevil, coconut palm rhinoceros beetle, caterpillar, and termite) found that the essential amino acids lacking in cereal protein, i.e., lysine and methionine, were present in relatively high amounts in these insects [14]."3

Insects may prove to be an additional novel protein source for pets with food sensitivities/allergies — Traditional veterinary and pet food industry recommendations over the last several decades have called for dogs and cats to be fed processed pet food twice a day, every day, year in and year out.

As a result, we have generations of dogs and cats with gut issues, food sensitivities and a host of chronic diseases resulting from daily ingestion of poor-quality diets containing the same protein sources, typically chicken, fish, beef or lamb. In response, pet food manufacturers have started offering formulas containing exotic and novel proteins such as venison, kangaroo and rabbit.

This has created a situation in which it's increasingly difficult to find a novel protein to offer pets who need an elimination diet to resolve a serious food intolerance problem. Insect-based pet food may offer an additional option for these pets.

With that said, if pet parents were advised at the outset to feed their animal companions a variety of common proteins like chicken, beef and lamb from high-quality sources on a rotating basis, it's unlikely we'd be seeing the epidemic of food sensitivities that exists today.

Environmental sustainability — Factory farming requires huge quantities of energy, water and land, not to mention the significant concerns about livestock welfare and pollutant effects. According to veterinarian Dr. Jennifer Coates, writing for PetMD:

"Insect farming can be accomplished ethically, more efficiently and with fewer resources. It produces little methane and ammonia, and it does not require any hormones or antibiotics. The low environmental impact of insect-based pet foods is their most notable, potential advantage."4

 

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Potential drawbacks of insect-based diets

Lack of scientific research — To date, very little research has been done to evaluate the effects of feeding insects to dogs and cats. Many kinds of insects are perfectly safe for pets to nibble on, but we don't know yet what the long-term health consequences might be of feeding insect-based diets.

"As encouraging as the nutritional content of insects appears," writes Coates, "more research is required into nutrient digestibility, absorption and utilization."

The "yuck factor" — Many people in the U.S. are revolted by the thought of eating insects, and they're not about to feed them to furry family members, either. As it stands right now, it's unclear how accepting consumers might be of insect-based pet food.

Gaining AAFCO acceptance — With a lack of scientific research into insect-based pet food and as of yet no strong interest by consumers, it's unlikely AAFCO or the FDA will change current regulations. As of today, only black soldier fly larvae have been approved, and only for use in fish feed.5

For the foreseeable future, insect-based pet food will still be processed pet food — Including insects as an ingredient in highly processed kibble doesn't benefit pets. It may be a positive move from an environmental standpoint, and I'm sure it will be positive for Big Pet Food's bottom line, but it doesn't solve all the many problems with kibble.

For example, the main ingredients in Green Petfood InsectDog Hypoallergenic dry dog food sold in Germany are of very poor quality: dried potato, pea meal, (unnamed) insects (10%), sunflower oil, partially hydrolyzed yeast, potato protein, beet fiber and carob meal.6

A dry insect-based diet for dogs sold in the U.K., Yora, includes the following main ingredients: grubs (40%), oats (19%), potato (19%), maize, peas and Brewer's yeast.7 While this formula consists primarily of insects, it also contains grains, starchy carbs (potato) and corn (maize).

It seems clear that pet food and treat manufacturers who are currently selling or will in the future sell insect-based formulas intend to get lots of marketing mileage out of the good-for-the-environment angle, which I completely support, but believe it can be done in pet food formulas that are fresh, human-grade, and don't carry the detrimental health consequences of highly processed pet foods.

For example, one Berkeley, California company, Jiminy's, which sells a line of cricket-based dog treats, has a website with a home page featuring a Great Dane that announces, "I'm reducing my carbon footprint." Each treat package makes the claim, "The sustainable superfood dogs love."

(Disclaimer: I know nothing about the quality of Jiminy's products — I'm simply mentioning them to illustrate how certain marketing buzzwords are sure to be used to sell insect-based pet food and treats.)

I'm a huge advocate of environmental sustainability, but just as I recommend ignoring the hype for other types of processed pet foods, I offer the same caution with regard to insect-based formulas; products will undoubtedly range from superior to terrible. Hopefully, if you've been curious about insect-based pet food, you'll find the information I've provided here helpful.