Kale and quinoa are some of the superfoods whose goodness marketers can’t tell you enough about, but in the future, that list may include a rather unusual, if not squeam-inducing, item: Cockroach milk. It is not milk in the conventional sense, but then, nothing about this really is conventional.
A team of scientists from India, France, Japan, Canada and the U.S. published a paper in the journal International Union of Crystallography that studies milk protein crystals found in the gut of the embryos of the Pacific beetle cockroach — only found along the Pacific rim of Asia and the only known roach species that is viviparous, that is, it births live babies instead of laying eggs.
That is just where the unusualness starts. The birth of live babies among these cockroaches is very different from the way mammals give birth (though there are some mammals, like the duck-billed platypus, that lay eggs). The embryos are inside eggs that are themselves inside the uterus — in this case, a membrane called a brood sac — in the mother’s body. However, the eggs, usually about 9-12 in number, don’t have sufficient nutrients to feed the embryos. The mother secretes a highly-nourishing liquid — which can be called milk — from her brood sac directly into the guts of the larvae, which is crystallized inside the larval stomachs. The larvae, feeding on these milk crystals, grow at an astonishing speed and the infants are much bigger than other cockroach species. Also impressive is the fact that the crystals release nutrients at the same rate at which the larvae’s bodies consume them, effectively eradicating wastage.
These crystals are what the scientists were studying and they found that each of these crystals “corresponds to more than three times the energy provided by the equivalent masses of mammalian milks from several species,” such as buffaloes.
A time when humans could actually consume this milk — if and when we manage to get around the usual instinctive sense of objection to something as alien-sounding as cockroach milk crystals — is not anywhere close. For one, there is no way to actually milk a cockroach. The only way to obtain these crystals is by cutting open cockroach embryos — not a very efficient way of producing milk for mass human consumption. Also, we still don’t know if the cockroach milk is toxic to humans.
But given the debates about dairy production and its contribution to human-induced climate change, options such as these may be seriously considered, the difficulty in marketing them notwithstanding. There are already companies mass-producing bugs for human consumption as an alternative to eating meat for protein. And such debates are important because according to estimates by the United Nations, one in nine people on the planet still do not get enough to eat.
As the name of the journal in which the study was published may suggest, the research was not undertaken for the purpose of its potential implications on human food habits. As Subramanian Ramaswamy, a biochemist at the Institute for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine in Bangalore, India, and a co-author of the paper, told the Washington Post about the research: “This was just born out of curiosity.”