Got cockroach milk?

If Leonard Chavas has his way, the Pacific beetle cockroach is set to be the newest trend among nutrition-conscious foodies. The cockroach species is the only one known to lactate, and its milk is thought to be a powerhouse of nutrients, according to a viral study Chavas co-authored that was published in the Journal of the International Union of Crystallography.

As odd as it is, cockroach milk might steal the limelight that’s so long belonged to kale, Moringa, and various other foreign vegetables Americans are only just now discovering.

Which brings us to the obvious question:

“How do you milk a cockroach, anyway?”

As it stands, it’s a labor-intensive process. Scientists carve out the cockroach’s midgut with a scalpel to harvest the milk, which actually is more the consistency of crystals. “Everything goes pretty quick,” Chavas told Inverse. By “quick,” Chavas actually means it takes one person a half day to process the milk of probably two — maybe three? — roaches.

The trick to getting the milk is to harvest at the right stage in the cockroach’s lifespan. At around 40 days old, the cockroach begins to lactate (enjoy that image) for its offspring, and thus opens the window for the scientists to get up in there, which involves killing the cockroach. The process is fairly straightforward and inexpensive, but it’s not feasible for mass production just yet (“We are doing this just for science reasons,” Chavas said, which is frankly the kind of purity we could all use more of right now).

Why are people calling it a “perfect food?”

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The milk itself comprises three types of very similar proteins. It contains all the essential amino acids required for proper cell growth. It also contains lipids we need to keep healthy, but which are not naturally well-produced by our own bodies. And the milk is highly glycosylated — the surfaces of its proteins are coated with sugar. All this comes together to mean that the energy profile of cockroach milk effectively kicks the butt of every other conceivable type of milk. It is four times more energy-dense than cow milk; three times more than buffalo milk. Chavas wasn’t sure how it stacked up to trendier options like almond milk, but given that cow milk has, ounce for ounce, eight times the protein of almond milk, we can reasonably extrapolate that cockroach milk kicks almond milk’s butt handily.

So … can you drink it?

Remember how cockroach milk actually has a crystalline structure? Crystals are common in nature; in humans, insulin is stored as crystals in our cells. Some diseases, like Parkinson’s, produce crystalline fibers. Many viruses contaminate different hosts by making crystals. We’re still learning just how cells produce crystals like the ones that form cockroach milk, but it’s arguably a sensible form to take.

Milk as we know it logically exists in liquid form because it’s easier to digest that way and easier to transfer from the body of the mother to the body of the offspring. But a ton of nutrients get lost when milk travels as a liquid. Crystal milk, though, is highly concentrated matter. With cockroach milk, no nutrients are lost; you get major bang for your lactose buck.

In terms of production, it helps to remember that a cockroach is not a cow. Ten cockroaches produce about half a milliliter of product; Chavas estimates that 100 grams would involve killing upwards of 1,000 cockroaches, meaning this is pretty clearly neither feasible or efficient.

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Cockroach milk has a more viable future as a pill, and that form might not be too far off in the future, though it would probably take somewhere in the ballpark of 100 cockroaches to produce a pill. The midgut is conveniently located and easy to remove, so it’s possible we’ll be able to automate the process at some point. The squirm-inducing roach might just have proven it’s got a good thing to offer the world after all.

Photos via Getty Images / Jonathan Wood