AAFCO approves mealworm protein for use in dog food in US

After two years of evaluation, mealworm protein from Ÿnsect was approved for use in adult dog food due to its high digestibility and sustainable production.

Cindy Hazen, Contributing writer

January 30, 2024

3 Min Read
mealworm powder

At a Glance

  • Mealworm protein, derived from beetle larvae, has been approved for the first time for use in adult dog food in the U.S.
  • Mealworms offer nutritional benefits and a sustainable edge over traditional protein sources.
  • This approval marks a significant step in the pet food industry, with potential for broader use in the future.

On Jan. 24, French producer of insect-based proteins Ÿnsect announced approval of its dried mealworm meal by The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), the organization responsible for overseeing ingredient definitions and label standards for animal feed. This is the first approval of mealworms for use in pet foods in the United States.

Austin Therrell, executive director of AAFCO, explained the approval process. “The AAFCO Ingredient Definition Request process is an ingredient approval pathway in the U.S. that allows new animal food ingredients to be thoroughly vetted, discussed in an open forum and voted on by state regulatory officials, while still being under the oversight of the FDA Center for Veterinary Medicine (CVM),” he said. “The process begins with the appropriate AAFCO Investigator making a recommendation to the Ingredient Definitions Committee, and then moves to a review by the AAFCO Board of Directors and ultimately to AAFCO membership for a final vote. At each review step, the pet food and animal feed manufacturing industry has an opportunity to work in partnership with AAFCO to comment on the definition and provide feedback for regulators to consider.”

AAFCO’s final vote followed a favorable opinion issued by FDA’s scientific committee in October 2023 on the use of the ingredient in pet food.

“Once an ingredient, such as dried mealworm meal, receives formal approval through an AAFCO membership vote, it can legally be distributed in the U.S. for its intended use and purpose,” Therrell explained. “Dried mealworm meal is currently approved only for use in adult dog food, however, AAFCO and FDA are always open to receiving additional data that will support expanding the use to other species such as cats or other specialty pets.”

The novel ingredient is derived from Tenebrio molitor, the larval form of the mealworm beetle. AAFCO spent two years evaluating the protein’s suitability for pet food. Additionally, Summit Ridge Farms, a leader in nutritional feeding trials, conducted a 6-month study that utilized a diet containing up to 30% mealworm proteins. At the conclusion, it was determined that the mealworms had a very high level of protein digestibility, exceeding 80%, which is the recommendation of AAFCO.

Professor Kelly Swanson, interim director of nutritional sciences for the department of animal sciences at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, compared four mealworm proteins against one another including hydrolyzed T. molitor protein meal. “Mealworm proteins contain all of the essential amino acids,” he said. “Whether it is a ‘complete protein’ and can be used on its own, however, depends on the species and life stage in question. That is true of all proteins.”

Given the quality of mealworm protein determined in his study, Swanson believes they should compete well with other proteins. “Unless it is an allergy diet, I usually don’t recommend any single protein source in pet foods,” he explained. “I have the same recommendation for mealworms. Because they have a solid amino acid profile and high digestibility, I think mealworm-based proteins can serve as a valuable complementary protein source in pet foods. Once it receives regulatory approval, from a nutritional perspective, it has just as much use in cat foods.”

Proponents of this alternative protein source call out its favorable environmental footprint, as carbon dioxide emissions are lower than those of other agricultural commodities. Compared to cattle, mealworm production is less energy- and land-intensive. No methane gas is produced.

Ÿnsect claims the largest, fully automated vertical farm in the world and is growing. In 2022, the company opened its third production site, a mealworm farm in Nebraska. Expansion is expected in the U.S. and Mexico.

Interest in the insect category is high. In October 2023, Tyson announced a partnership with Protix, a Netherlands-based company, to help fund the company’s global expansion, including a facility in the U.S. According to the press release, Protix produces and processes 14,000 metric tons annually of insect ingredients for use in pet food, aquaculture feed, livestock feed and organic fertilizer.

About the Author(s)

Cindy Hazen

Contributing writer

Cindy Hazen has more than 25 years of experience developing seasonings, dry blends, beverages and more. Today, when not writing or consulting, she expands her knowledge of food safety as a food safety officer for a Memphis-based produce distributor.

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