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The idea is a bit disarming, but cockroach milk may be one of the most super of all superfoods. Don’t worry; you won’t be seeing cockroach milk in stores anytime soon, and if it is ever actually for sale, the word “cockroach” will be left out.
In July 2016, a group of stem cell biologists and chemists published a paper that got enormous media attention, due to the strange topic. The paper, published in the International Union of Crystallography (IUCrJ), concerned a novel discovery made by a team of 11 scientists spanning from Iowa to India, who investigated the nutritional concentration of cockroach milk. They found that it exceeded the food value of buffalo milk, the international standard for the most nutritious milk, by three times.
Cockroaches are among nature’s most persistent creatures. There are over 4,500 species of cockroaches worldwide. They have evolved over an estimated 320 million years and are exceptional survivors in the global ecology. Nutrition plays a role in this. And that’s where cockroach milk comes in.
There isn’t much cockroach milk in the world— that’s because only one species of cockroach, Diploptera punctata, or the Pacific beetle cockroach, produces milk. This is known as viviparity, in which developing offspring who hatch from eggs are fed milk by the mother. This milk aggregates in a brood sac within the uterus of the cockroach, and forms crystals which feed the young. It was University of Iowa biologist Barbara Stay who discovered that the milk turns into crystals in the guts of developing embryos. These crystals are exceptionally concentrated in nutrients.
Due to the small size of a cockroach brood sac, and the even smaller quantity of milk stored therein, it is no easy task teasing out some milk. The cockroaches must be sacrificed, and the milk extracted from the body cavity with care. Tasked with this approach, the researchers involved in the study analyzed the milk, and found a complete food, rich in proteins, fats and sugars, along with a number of peptides, which are parts of proteins and can impart significant health advantages. The discovered that cockroach milk is three times as nutritionally rich a buffalo milk, and four times as concentrated as cow’s milk. And that’s a big deal.
The nutritional density of cockroach milk almost certainly is why the Pacific beetle cockroach achieves sexual reproductive maturity in less than half the time of other species.
There will be no effort to mass-produce cockroaches and create mini milking machines. No small-fingered people will be enlisted to tease out the tiny bit of milk in a cockroach. Instead, these researchers plan to engineer yeast using the gene sequence of the milk crystals, basically manufacturing this superfood from scratch. So perhaps someday, some engineered supermilk will appear on store shelves, as a result of this research.
The story doesn’t quite end there. When I was scheduled to record a Health Talk with Dr. Manny Alvarez about cockroach milk, I wanted to do something different from what everybody else has done with this story. So I contacted a couple of the researchers from the study, and asked for some cockroach milk. I was quite surprised by their very enthusiastic response. They flew into action, contacting each other and copying me, from Iowa to Brussels to India, with several researchers suggesting that others might have some of the milk in a fridge. They seemed pretty excited about it all.
The day before I headed to New York to record our Health Talk segment, two FedEx packages arrived, one from Belgium and one from North Carolina, each containing a tiny vial of 100 percent real cockroach milk. It was an amazing bit of timing.
The next day, after Dr. Manny and I discussed on camera the relative merits of cockroach milk, we did something consistent with our ten years of eating strange foods, from fried puffer-fish sperm to brain ravioli, to partially developed duck embryo in an egg, feathers and all.
We drank cockroach milk on our segment, which you can see in the video related to this article. It was a first ever, the drinking of cockroach milk on TV. And while we are not likely to receive major public acclaim or good citizen citations for this, it felt good to have a first. In the world of bizarre foods, we have set a new high bar.
Others will certainly find this act hard to follow.