Two years after a scientific study on cockroach milk first made headlines, the creepy-crawly non-dairy alternative is back in the news: When an old article resurfaced last week, the Internet pounced—reacting with horror, fascination, and sometimes a little bit of both.
So what is cockroach milk? The buzz all started back in 2016 when an international team of researchers conducted a nutritional analysis of the milk-like substance that female Pacific beetle cockroaches produce and feed to their offspring. According to NPR, the scientists discovered that cockroach milk (which is not technically milk, by the way, but a yellowish fluid that solidifies into crystals in the offspring’s stomachs) is one of the most nutritious substances on the planet.
The study, published in the Journal of the International Union of Crystallography, found that cockroach milk contains three times more calories than the equivalent mass of buffalo milk, which currently holds the prize for the most calorie-rich milk from a mammal. Cockroach milk also contains protein and amino acids, which could potentially be valuable to human health.
As disgusting as it may sound, the idea of cockroach milk is appealing to many scientists, and even to some consumers. After all, there is a growing demand for dairy-free alternatives to cow’s milk and ice cream—for people with dairy allergies or intolerances, for those who follow a vegan lifestyle, and for anyone looking for more sustainable, environmentally friendly food sources.
At the time of their study’s publication, the authors said there still was no evidence that cockroach milk was safe for people to eat. (Although, one of them reportedly tried it and said it tasted “like pretty much nothing.”) They also pointed out that cockroaches only make a tiny amount of this fluid and that producing enough to sell it commercially could pose a serious challenge.
Researchers may still not be any closer to a solution to these particular obstacles. In an email to Health, one of the study’s authors explains that it’s not actually possible to “milk” cockroaches in the same way as cows or other mammals, and that the most feasible path forward would be through genetic engineering—putting genes from the cockroaches into yeast cultures that might then be able to produce the same fluid at a commercial scale.
“I think it unlikely that anyone will be drinking it soon,” said Barbara Stay, Ph.D., professor emerita at the University of Iowa. “I have no idea how costly that would be to establish and then produce in any quantity.”
Still, some companies are finding other ways to harness the power of bug-based foods. A large grocery store chain in Canada recently began selling its own brand of cricket-based protein powder, and Health previously tested the paleo-friendly Exo protein bar made with cricket flour.
Most recently, the South African company Gourmet Grubb introduced ice cream produced with “entomilk,” a milk alternative made from insects. “Think of entomilk as a sustainable, nature-friendly, nutritious, lactose-free, delicious, guilt-free dairy alternative of the future,” the company’s website states.
It’s not clear whether the company’s products are for sale just yet, and they’re definitely not available in the United States. But Gourmet Grubb did present its ice cream—in three flavors: peanut butter, chocolate, and chai—at last month’s Design Indaba conference for emerging designers in South Africa. The website Cool Hunting, which attended the conference, reported that the ice cream is made with black soldier fly larvae and that its flavor and texture were totally “normal.”
“People arrived at our stand with the idea of creepy crawlies, and when they tasted the ice cream, they couldn’t even believe that it was made from insects,” Gourmet Grubb co-founder Leah Bessa told Design Indaba. “And that is how it begins, just by educating people on the possibilities.” After it perfects its ice cream formula, the company plans to focus on yogurt and cheese, as well.
Last year, a study in the Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry found that insects contain important vitamins and minerals, including iron. In fact, iron solubility (a measure of how much of the mineral would be available to humans) was significantly higher for insects than for sirloin beef. And eating insects certainly isn’t new: A 2013 United Nations report noted that more than 1,900 species of bugs are currently considered food sources in different cultures all over the world.
Until insect milk makes its way stateside, at least we’ve still got plenty of dairy-free alternative products to choose from. But it may only be a matter of time before a bug-based product joins them on grocery-store shelves. And perhaps sometime in the future, it won’t even seem that weird.