How Black Soldier Fly Could Be the Secret Weapon for Global Food Security

Embarking on a journey through the world of sustainable food sources, the Black Soldier Fly (Hermetia illucens) stands out as a beacon of potential and intrigue.

Originating from the Neotropical realm, this insect has conquered territories worldwide, showcasing unparalleled adaptability and resilience. Its larvae, voracious and efficient, present a unique solution to the pressing global challenges of waste management and food production. Yet, as we edge closer to embracing this creature in our food systems, questions and curiosities arise.

Is it safe for human consumption? What secrets does its biology hold, and how does it transform waste into a treasure trove of nutrients?

We delve into the heart of these questions, unraveling the mysteries of the Black Soldier Fly and examining the latest research on its risks and benefits.

Global Reach & Habitat Adaptation

The Black Soldier Fly has experienced a significant expansion in its distribution since the late 20th century. Originally native to the Neotropical realm, it has now established its presence across all continents, showcasing a remarkable adaptability to diverse environments.

From North America and Europe to Africa and Asia, the Black Soldier Fly has become a virtually cosmopolitan species.

Morphology & Mimicry

Adult Black Soldier Flies are medium-sized, measuring about 16 millimeters in length, with a predominantly black body that exhibits metallic reflections ranging from blue to green.

Their mimicry of the organ pipe mud dauber wasp is enhanced by elongated antennae, pale hind tarsi, and transparent “windows” in the basal abdominal segments, creating a wasp-like appearance. This mimicry serves as a survival mechanism, deterring predators by resembling a stinging insect.

Reproductive Efficiency & Lifecycle

life cycle of black soldier flies

A single female Black Soldier Fly can lay between 206 and 639 eggs, which hatch in about 4 days. The larvae are highly adaptable, capable of feeding on a wide variety of organic matter and adjusting to different nutrient contents.

The larval stage lasts from 18 to 36 days, with the pupal stage taking an additional 1 to 2 weeks. Adults have a lifespan of 47 to 73 days when provided with water and food, or 8 to 10 days on fat reserves from the larval stage.

Black Soldier Fly Biology

Only the larval stage is used for food applications [1]. The larvae go through 5-10 days of rapid feeding and growth before entering a non-feeding prepupal stage.

The prepupae convert into pupae that metamorphose into 2-3 week adult flies. The adults live solely to mate and reproduce, not requiring food. Females lay 500-900 eggs in cracks near decaying matter. The eggs hatch in around 4 days to restart the cycle [2].

Role In Waste Management and Sustainability

Black Soldier Fly larvae play a crucial role in breaking down organic substrates, similar to redworms, but at a much faster rate. They are used in industrial-scale insect factories for recycling organic waste and producing animal feed.

Companies like InnovaFeed and Protix are leading the way in harnessing the potential of these larvae for sustainable protein production.

Waste Reduction Benefits

holding black soldier fly

A major advantage of black soldier fly larvae (BSFL) is their ability to efficiently reduce organic wastes. As larvae, they are voracious eaters capable of consuming twice their body weight daily [3].

Each consumes around 200 mg of waste per day [4]. BSFL can rapidly digest a wide array of decaying organic material, including animal manures, food scraps, crop residues, and municipal biowaste [3,5].

Within livestock operations, BSFL have been used to process cattle, pig, and poultry manures with significant volume reduction [6-8]. They also decompose waste faster than composting or vermicomposting methods [4,9].

BSFL waste processing offers additional sustainability benefits. Their digestion greatly reduces pathogens in the substrate [4,10]. It also emits far lower greenhouse gases compared to windrow composting or anaerobic digestion of organic waste [11,12]. BSFL convert waste nitrogen and phosphorus into more bioavailable forms present in their bodies, in effect recycling nutrients [13].

Overall, BSFL are capable of efficiently converting low-value organic materials into a nutritious biomass suitable for feeding livestock or humans while reducing environmental impacts. These waste management properties underpin much of the interest in using BSFL for food production.

Environmental Contributions & Bioremediation

The Black Soldier Fly contributes significantly to environmental sustainability. Its larvae aid in reducing E. coli and Salmonella in manure, and they can reclaim pollutants from organic waste.

Recent research has also explored their potential in bioremediation, showing their ability to purify biomass contaminated with heavy metals.

Harvested BSFL as Animal or Human Food

Once finished processing waste, the prepupal BSFL are harvested for use as food or feed ingredients. BSFL can be processed into protein meal, oil, and biofertilizers [3]. Their nutritional composition is similar to conventional animal proteins like fishmeal or soybean meal [14]. Dried BSFL contain up to 42% protein and 35% fat on average along with minerals such as zinc, iron, and calcium [15].

BSFL meal is already used commercially in poultry, swine, and aquaculture feeds [3,16]. Replacing fishmeal, soy, or grains with BSFL meal results in equal or improved animal performance [14].

For human food, BSFL can be processed into powders or pastes incorporated into energy bars, snacks, or other products [17]. Consumer research indicates willingness to try BSFL, especially in processed form versus whole [18]. Insects like BSFL require far less feed, water, and land than traditional livestock.

Using them as food could significantly enhance the global food system’s sustainability [19]. However, key questions around the safety of eating BSFL remain.

Microbial Risks

showing microbial risks

Many insect species carry foodborne pathogens and spoilage microorganisms acquired from their environment and diet. Common concerns in edible insects include Salmonella, Listeria, Escherichia coli, Bacillus cereus, and Staphylococcus aureus [20].

BSFL can harbor significant microbial loads influenced by rearing conditions [21]. Their risk factors include local environment, substrate fed upon, harvesting technique, post-harvest processing, and storage [22].

Feeding substrate has a large impact on BSFL microbial safety. Both experimental and commercial groups emphasize using clean, high-quality feeds like grain by-products to avoid pathogen contamination [16,22]. While BSFL digestion does inactivate some microbes like Salmonella, substrate properties dominate final microbial levels [10,21].

Harvesting and processing methods also critically control BSFL microbial loads. Chilling, blanching, radiation, and high pressure processing can all reduce microbes over 2-5 log units [20,23]. Drying BSFL stabilizes and extends shelf life by inhibiting microbial growth [24].

Blanching for 20-60 seconds at 90-100°C is a simple, effective method for pasteurization and decontamination [22,25].

The Dutch government pioneered suggested microbiological limits for insects based on EU meat standards [26]. Total aerobic microbes should not exceed 10^7 colony forming units (CFU)/g and the pathogenic indicator E. coli should be under 10^4 CFU/g. Levels of the spoilage spore-former B. cereus should also remain below 10^5 CFU/g due to its heat resistance.

Recent studies of BSFL report that utilizing clean feedstocks and blanching can successfully control microbial counts within these proposed limits [21,25]. However, additional data is needed to develop science-based standards specifically for BSFL. Hazard analysis critical control point (HACCP) programs are advised to control BSFL microbial risks [16].

Heavy Metal Bioaccumulation

Insects can bioaccumulate heavy metals present in contaminated feeds, accumulating higher concentrations in their bodies. Metals like lead, arsenic, cadmium, mercury, and tin are highly toxic to humans and should be minimized [27,28]. However, BSFL require metals like zinc, manganese, iron, and copper at certain levels to grow [29]. The essential metals can become toxic above threshold ranges.

BSFL uptake and bioaccumulation varies based on metal type, feedstock concentrations, and rearing conditions. Cadmium shows some of the highest accumulation factors in BSFL, ranging from 1.2-12.2 times higher than feed levels [22,30]. Zinc and manganese also concentrate in BSFL with bioaccumulation factors around 2-5 [29,31]. Heavy metal bioaccumulation tends to increase with BSFL age [30].

However, BSFL fed appropriate feedstocks stay within current regulatory limits for metals. The EU sets maximum levels for contaminant metals in foods. BSFL analyses show they can meet limits set for meat, seafood, or insects specifically [28,30,31]. Using agricultural and food by-products as BSFL substrates avoids high metal contamination. Further research should analyze bioaccumulation from different feedstocks and identify mitigation strategies if needed [27,30].

Allergenicity Concerns

Some proteins in edible insects share structural similarities with known food allergens, which poses concerns for sensitive individuals. In BSFL, tropomyosin, arginine kinase, and myosin may have cross-reactivity with allergens from crustaceans, dust mites, or other arthropods [12,32].

These could provoke adverse reactions in people allergic to shellfish, shrimp, mites, etc. [33-35]. However, the allergenicity of BSFL depends on processing and matrix effects as well as individual sensitivity.

One study detecting tropomyosin, arginine kinase, and myosin in BSFL found blanching increased the proteins’ abundance [22]. However, clinical testing would be needed to determine if blanching truly makes BSFL more allergenic. In contrast, enzymatic hydrolysis reduced the IgE-binding potential of BSFL protein extracts, indicating reduced allergenicity [32].

BSFL protein isolates themselves showed low in vitro reactivity with shrimp-allergic patients’ sera [35]. But other immunological tests have detected cross-reactivity [22,36].

The conflicting results demonstrate the complexity of accurately predicting BSFL allergenicity [12]. More research on how preparation affects stability and potency of BSFL proteins will help define risks to sensitive populations [22]. Clear labeling guidelines for BSFL products will also allow consumers to avoid uncertain foods [12].

Will This Idea Fly?

BSFL present an opportunity to sustainably divert organic wastes into high-quality nutrition. However, potential health risks from microbes, heavy metals, and allergens require continued investigation.

Current evidence shows that given appropriate feeding, harvesting, and processing, BSFL can likely meet standards for conventional livestock products. But tailored guidelines are needed to ensure optimal BSFL safety and quality.

Addressing these areas will support integrating BSFL into food systems while managing risks.


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Davin is a jack-of-all-trades but has professional training and experience in various home and garden subjects. He leans on other experts when needed and edits and fact-checks all articles.