Research conducted by Aelius Biotech in partnership with Cheshire-based sports nutrition company, Protein Rebel, has demonstrated that the digestibility of powdered crickets in a small intestinal model is over 50 per cent higher than a standard whey protein. This statistically significant research suggests that cricket protein may be more effective at delivering the amino acids required for muscle growth than whey protein, which for over 20 years has been regarded as the best protein for muscle building due to its fast digestion and complete amino acid profile.
The research undertaken by gastrointestinal research organisation, Aelius Biotech (a Newcastle University spin-out), is the first known research of its kind that compares the digestibility of cricket protein against whey protein. It involved modelling the human digestive tract using a patented model of the human mouth, stomach and small intestine which simulates the digestive processes without the need for animal testing. By simulating the digestion of cricket protein against an equivalent amount of standard whey protein, the digestibility of each can be compared.
“In our tests we showed faster and higher rates of protein digestion with the cricket powder as compared to whey protein” says Peter Chater, Co-Founder and CEO of Aelius Biotech. “Proteins must be broken up into their 'building blocks' so that they can be absorbed and used for muscle protein synthesis and muscle growth.”
Commenting on the findings, Jamie Highton, Professor of Applied Sports Physiology from University of Chester says, “This is a promising first step in determining the effectiveness of cricket protein. Digestion and amino acid absorption are some of the key determinants of a protein’s ability to stimulate muscle protein synthesis and this data would suggest that cricket protein has the potential to rival whey. I’m excited to see the results of future peer-reviewed studies on real people.”
The triggering of muscle protein synthesis (MPS) requires a protein with a complete amino acid profile. The speed at which the protein is absorbed by the body is also important with higher quality proteins having a faster absorption rate, thereby promoting MPS sooner. Fundamental to this is how quickly the protein is digested in the small intestine which is the major site of absorption of amino acids. As cricket protein has a complete amino acid profile and is 50 per cent more digestible than whey, the indications are that it has the potential to promote muscle growth to at least the same level, if not at a better level, than whey protein.
In addition to its nutritional properties, cricket protein is a far more sustainable source of protein than whey as farming crickets requires far less land, water and feed than cows and emits a fraction of the carbon.
Professor Highton says, “It’s important that the sports nutrition industry considers its environmental impact and the sustainability of its products. We also want to ensure that athletes are having the optimum nutritional intake to support training, performance and adaptation. Exploring promising data like this is therefore important in examining the effectiveness of more sustainable protein sources.”
Whey protein still dominates the sports nutrition market, however protein powders and shakes from alternative sources, such as soy and pea are growing in demand, with vegan protein powders seeing strong growth in 2020.
Sports nutrition products derived from insects are still in their infancy, however start-up brand Protein Rebel, which provides Reload - a plant and cricket-based protein powder - has identified the nutritional and environmental benefits of insects and their potential to rival whey.
Tim Boote, the Crewe-based Co-founder of Protein Rebel says, “Crickets have a strong nutritional profile. They contain all essential amino acids as well as various vitamins and minerals, and we recognised early-on that they’re incredibly easy to digest. This, together with their sustainability credentials, is why we use cricket protein in our post-workout powder. However, until now we haven’t had the robust scientific research to back up our anecdotal findings.”
Boote adds, “The results of this gut research are really exciting and will make the sports nutrition industry sit up and take notice. We look forward to partnering with Aelius Biotech on further pioneering research to gain a better understanding of how crickets compare with whey in promoting muscle growth.”