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The Early Bird Catches the Worm - Nutritionists develop an insect-based dog treat

The crispy dog treats look a bit like peanut puffs. Photo: Karla Fritze.

The crispy dog treats look a bit like peanut puffs. Photo: Karla Fritze.

They are a healthy, protein-rich, and very common food in Asian and South American countries: Crickets, mealworms, and locusts enrich the daily diet of some two billion people and provide a sustainable alternative to conventional meat sources. After all, the production of an insect meal uses up only a fraction of the resources required for a steak or pork filet, yet it may be some time before insect snacks become a part of everyday life in Europe. There may be fewer obstacles, though, when it comes to pet food – such as mealworm-based dog treats.

You wouldn’t notice them at first glance. Only every so often is there movement in the white flour, between slices of carrot and apple. Ina Henkel carefully brushes some of the flour aside in a flat plastic tub. Pale yellow worms writhe. The nutritionist points to other plastic tubs lined up on the shelves of the small room, which also contain mealworms. Some of them are mere millimeters long, while others are up to three centimeters. “These are in adult stage,” the researcher explains, pointing to brown-black beetles crawling through the milled grain. “They can’t fly,” Henkel reassures. A female mealworm beetle lays some 500 eggs, ensuring the next generation.

Mealworm snack is healthy and sustainably produced 

The mealworm breeding being done by Henkel and two colleagues at the Institute for Grain Processing (IVG) in Nuthetal is the basis of a business idea. The founders developed a mealworm-based dog treat that is both healthy and sustainably produced. The three women hope their startup “TeneTRIO” fills a niche in the booming pet food market, laying the groundwork for using insects as valuable protein sources.

It all starts with a rather unpopular animal. Twelve weeks after hatching, just before pupating, the large mealworms are ready to be harvested and processed. The entrepreneurs mix the ground-up worms with rice. The mixture is then heated in an extruder and, under high pressure, converted into a product not identifiable as containing insects. 

“Natural, healthy, sustainable, delicious” is written on the brown bag from which Henkel takes some of the small, crispy dog treats. They look a bit like peanut puffs. “What’s special about our snacks is that they contain only two ingredients: ground-up mealworms and rice,” the researcher explains. No additives such as flavor enhancers or preservatives are used, so dog owners can give their pets a guilt-free treat. According to Henkel, the mealworms taste “nutty and savory”. To optimize their flavor, the researchers test out different flour mixtures: A worm fed on spelt flour tastes different than one fed on only wheat flour. “We use a special mixture,” the researcher says. And that mixture resonates with pets, the entrepreneurs found out at initial ‘tastings’ at dog grooming schools. 

Also as a nutritionist, Henkel is convinced that the mealworm snack is healthy: Mealworms contain a higher percentage of polyunsaturated fatty acids than fish, more biotin and magnesium than spinach, and the quality of their protein is comparable to that of beef. They are also energy-rich: 100 grams of mealworm larvae fulfills a quarter of a human’s daily energy requirements. 

Insects as food – it just takes a little getting used to

Health considerations are not the only argument for using the insect as a nutritional source: “It takes just 4,000 liters of water to produce a kilogram of mealworm – compared to 15,400 liters for a kilogram of beef.” Other comparisons of resource consumption speak in favor of the mealworm: only 15 square meters of land per kilogram is consumed in producing mealworm versus 200 square meters for beef. “The difference is drastic,” the researcher underlines. And that’s not all: For every kilogram of beef, farmers use 10 kilograms of grain as animal food, whereas mealworms need just 2 kilograms. Another environmental perk of using mealworms is that they can be completely utilized, whereas only 40 percent of a cow’s body is fit for consumption. In short – the worm is a sustainable alternative to conventional meat sources. 

This also holds for human nutrition. Insect meal in burgers or granola bars could very soon become a reality in Germany, too. In a survey, up to 80% of respondents appear open to using insects as protein source – provided that the creepy-crawlers are not recognizable as such in the food. In Germany, though, processed insects are not allowed for human consumption unless they have passed a complex – and expensive – approval procedure. “The Novel Food Regulation bans their use,” Henkel explains. But things will be changing soon. Even today, Belgium and the Netherlands interpret the Regulation less strictly. In these countries, noodles containing insect meal are already available in supermarkets. In 2018, the EU Regulation will be reviewed. Henkel expects the go-ahead is likely to be given for insects in food. 

But until then, a lot of educational work needs to be done. “The yuck-factor should not be underestimated,” the researcher admits. Culturally, people are not used to seeing insects as either healthy or delicious ingredients. And the public is not yet aware of the extent of the environmental impact of rising meat consumption on the environment. “20% of all arable land is used for pet food production alone,” Henkel says. 

Insects on your plate? This idea may require some getting used to. “Eating insects for the first time took me quite a bit of effort, too,” Henkel admits. But it is no longer unusual for her to use insects in her cooking. Nor is it unusual for her family. “The first thing my daughter eats from a quiche are mealworms,” she says with a laugh.

TeneTRIO is a startup in the pre-setup phase that develops dog treats containing mealworms as protein source. The insects are highly nutritious and require just a fraction of the resources required for the production of the same amount of conventional meat sources. TenePops is, therefore, a healthy and sustainable alternative to the snacks currently available. TeneTRIO covers the entire value-added chain from the regional breeding of the mealworms to their processing and production as well as the marketing and sales of the final product.

The Researcher

Dr. Ina Henkel studied nutrition science at the University of Potsdam and obtained her PhD in 2013. In 2017, she founded the startup “TeneTRIO”, which produces mealworm-based dog treats.

University of Potsdam
Institute of Nutrition Science 
Arthur-Scheunert-Allee
114–11614558 Nuthetal
ina.henkel@tenetrio.nomorespam.de 

The University of Potsdam offers an accelerator program to enhance the qualifications of entrepreneurs planning to start their own business and optimally prepare them. Initial consultations are followed by an intensive 3-day workshop, and further training is available as needed. TeneTRIO received coaching during its business model development, competitive analysis, team development, and division of labor. The team’s application for an EXIST grant was successful, testifying to the program’s high standard. Under this grant, the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy will be supporting TeneTRIO’s innovative startup project for a full year. www.potsdam-transfer.de 

Text: Heike Kampe
Translation: Monika Wilke
Online published by: Daniela Großmann
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