• Milk protein crystals from the stomachs of a particular type of cockroach are a highly nutritious source of protein. (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
The newly discovered, highly nutritious secretion contains three times the amount of energy found in cow milk.
Alyssa Braithwaite

25 Jul 2016 - 4:06 PM  UPDATED 25 Jul 2016 - 4:08 PM

We're used to cockroaches scurrying around our kitchens feasting on scraps, but new research could see humans turning to cockroaches for food.

An international team of scientists have found that crystals found in the stomachs of a particular type of cockroach are a highly nutritious source of protein. The findings have been published in the journal of the International Union of Crystallography.

The Pacific Beetle Cockroach (Diploptera punctata) is found in Asia and Pacific islands including Hawaii, and is the only known viviparous cockroach - which means it gives birth to live young, just like mammals do. 

And, also like mammals, they have to feed their offspring with a "milk" containing protein crystals.

According to the research conducted by scientists from India, Japan, Canada, the USA and France, a single milk protein crystal from the cockroach's stomach is estimated to contain more than three times the amount of energy found in an equivalent amount of dairy milk. 

Furthermore, their crystalline nature means that the crystal releases protein at the same rate the protein is consumed. 

"It's time-released food," senior author of the study Subramanian Ramaswamy told the Times of India, adding "if you need food that is calorifically high, that is time released and food that is complete, this is it".

Really out there?

Professor John Carver, the Director of the Research School of Chemistry at the Australian National University, says while even the very idea of cockroach milk sounds "really out there", it has a lot of promise.

"They have found this crystal inside this cockroach, and they've determined its structure in vivo (taking place in a living organism), so from a technical point of view it's a very interesting and possibly very important paper," Prof Carver tells SBS Science. 

"They've found out that it's actually composed of protein, and also lipid - or fats - and lots of sugars. There's the three components that are really important for nutrition, and so it's a highly nutritious source of food for the growing cockroach."

Professor Carver thinks the milk, which is of an entirely different composition to mammal milk, could be produced large-scale, as a dietary supplement.  

"They wouldn't go and kill lots of cockroaches for it," he says. "They would isolate the gene for this protein from the cockroach and then express it and grow it up in a yeast system in very large microbiological vats and produce large quantities."

Biotech needed

"It would require quite a bit of biotechnology to get it into a form that you would harvest and use as a food supplement, but it's eminently doable with the technologies that we have and it's very common for making large dietary supplements that way," says Carver.

"Potentially it could be an additive which is a very high energy source, which people who work out in gyms might be interested in using."

In fact, the biggest barrier may be finding a way to get people to ingest something that originally came from the stomach of a cockroach. 

"You'd probably have to keep it quiet about the origins - the marketing might be the most interesting aspect of the whole thing," says Carver.

Let's see where this takes us.

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