Edible Bird Nests: Nutrients, Benefits, Cons

Birds are remarkable and fascinating creatures, able to soar through the skies with a degree of freedom that we humans can only fantasize about.

In many cultures, including Asian traditions, birds are revered as status symbols, due to their association with the heavens.

Perhaps for this reason, the nests of some species have been prized as a culinary delicacy for hundreds of years. To this day, they are still considered a premium nutritious food with therapeutic properties in many parts of Asia.

This article reviews the culinary uses, nutrients, potential benefits, and drawbacks of edible bird’s nests.

Edible bird’s nests are also known as “Yan Wo”and “Oriental caviar” in the Chinese community (1).

In traditional Chinese medicine, they have been used for therapeutic purposes since the Tang and Sung dynasties, considered a sign of power and status (1).

Bird species

The nests are produced by the edible-nest swiftlet, a small bird native to Southeast Asia (1).

The world’s largest herd of swiftlets lives in Indonesia, the largest producer of edible bird’s nests, followed by Malaysia, the most prolific producer of exciting bird’s nests (2).

Although 24 species of swiftlets are found worldwide, only the white-nest swiftlets (Fuciphagous Aerodramus) and black swallows (Aerodramus maximus) contribute to the lucrative market (3).

What are the nests made of?

The architecture of edible bird’s nests is wonderfully unusual and resembles a hammock made of tightly woven threads. They can be white, yellow or red.

Nests are built with hardened saliva regurgitated by swiftlets. They also contain feathers and other debris. Edible bird nests are not constructed from twigs or other types of plant material, as some people mistakenly believe (4).

Edible bird nests are meticulously cleaned of feathers, grit and other debris with tweezers before being used in cooking (4).

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Edible bird’s nests are a centuries-old delicacy. Edible-nest swiftlets, a species of bird native to Southeast Asia, build nests from their saliva. The nests are used for therapeutic purposes in traditional Chinese medicine.

For centuries, nests have been collected from limestone caves in Borneo, Malaysia, particularly the massive Gomantong and Niah caves.

Today, edible bird nests are protected under the Wildlife Conservation Act 1997. Only locals with a permit can climb to the top of the caves twice a year, in February and July-September, to harvest. Unauthorized collectors can be subject to fines and penalties (5).

The harvesting of these nests is described as controversial by some internet communities. It is claimed that those engaged in the business pay bribes to gain access to the caves.

Today, the global market for edible bird nests is booming, with most nests being cultivated rather than collected from caves (6).

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For centuries the nests have been ripped out of limestone caves in Borneo, Malaysia. The global market for edible bird’s nests is booming. Today, most nests are cultivated rather than collected from caves.

Traditionally, the Chinese community used these nests as an ingredient in soup. Today, the soup continues to be used as a medicinal supplement and remedy in the Asian community.

The soup has been a status symbol and used as a therapeutic aid since ancient China, when it was eaten by rulers and high officials. Even today, it is considered one of the most expensive soups in the world.

To do this, the bird’s nest is infused in a double boiling process with rock sugar. The preparation process can take hours (2).

The flavor of the soup is mild, with a somewhat gooey texture comparable to egg whites. In some specialty Asian restaurants, you’ll find it prepared as a main course or starter on the menu, sometimes served with noodles, seafood, or vegetables.

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The nest is commonly used as a soup ingredient in China. It was a status symbol and believed to be a restorative health tonic. To do this, the nest is infused in a double boiling process with rock sugar.

Macronutrients and micronutrients are found in the nests of edible birds.

Carbohydrates, glycoproteins – molecules with protein and carbohydrate chains that support body functions – and trace elements such as calcium, sodium, magnesium, zinc, manganese and iron make up the key nutrients (7).

Edible bird nests also contain a plethora of bioactive compounds that may have health benefits.

These include glucosamine, sialic acid, structural components of fats called fatty acids, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and building blocks of proteins called amino acids (7).

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Carbohydrates, glycoproteins and minerals like calcium and iron are the main nutrients in birds’ nests.

There are many claims that bird nests support human health, although research is lacking to support them.

Traditional uses

Traditional Chinese medicine claims that edible bird’s nests act as a cure for diseases like tuberculosis, asthma, and stomach upset (2).

Edible bird’s nests are also said to improve libido, boost immune function, improve energy and metabolism, and boost circulation. These properties have even been researched in test-tube studies (2, 8).

Nevertheless, these results need to be confirmed by additional evidence.

Can fight disease

It seems that certain bioactive compounds found in the nests of edible birds could potentially hinder the flu virus (2).

Additionally, three preliminary laboratory studies suggest that components of edible birds’ nests may be able to destroy fast-growing cancer cells. However, the exact components with anti-cancer properties are unknown at this time (2).

Nevertheless, further research is needed to support these findings.

Bone health

There is also interest in the potential of edible bird’s nests as a therapeutic supplement for osteoarthritis and bone health.

Although data are sparse, animal research has observed an increase in bone strength after daily consumption of edible bird’s nest extract (2).

Brain health

According to animal research, edible bird nests may have brain-protective properties (9).

Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, brain damage, and stroke are all linked to cognitive impairment, likely due to inflammation of the brain (9).

A systematic review in animals showed that edible bird nests improved cognitive performance by reducing inflammation and oxidative stress (ten).

Oxidative stress occurs when free radicals – potentially pathogenic molecules – damage your body’s cells by changing their chemical structures. This can lead to a cascade of adverse health effects.

Still, more research is needed before bird nests can be linked to better brain health.

May support diabetes management

High blood sugar promotes oxidative stress and is a major risk factor for heart disease in people with unmanaged diabetes.

Promisingly, research in mice and test tubes has shown that bird nests can protect the blood vessels of people with diabetes from oxidative stress (11).

Still, more research is needed on the subject, especially in humans.

skin health

Edible bird’s nests have long been promoted as a beauty treatment, with claims that they hydrate, whiten and protect the skin from oxidation (12).

In fact, proteins found in edible bird nests have been shown to protect the skin barrier and provide anti-aging properties (3, 12).

According to a recent study, edible nests also improve the surface texture of the skin (13).

Moreover, some people believe that these nests, which have collagen-like texture and structure, can strengthen facial collagen and improve sagging skin.

However, it is not yet certain whether swift nests have an effect on collagen production and skin health.

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According to animal studies, bird nests could potentially protect against the flu, promote bone health, improve brain health, and more. However, there is little to no solid scientific evidence to support these claims.

Some people are allergic to edible bird’s nests and could experience life-threatening anaphylaxis after consuming them. Swift saliva, insects eaten by swifts, nest-dwelling mites, and nest cleaning practices can all be sources of allergens (3).

Additionally, bacteria in the nests of edible birds can cause food poisoning. Microorganisms of concern include E.coli, Salmonella, Staphylococcus aureus, yeasts and molds (3).

It should also be noted that since bird’s nests are animal by-products, some countries have strict import limits for them. This is, for example, to prevent the spread of avian influenza H5N1, also known as bird flu (14).

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Some people may be allergic to edible, potentially life-threatening bird’s nests. Additionally, the nests may contain bacteria that cause food poisoning. Some countries restrict the import of nests due to the risk of spreading bird flu.

Edible bird nests are made from the saliva of swiftlets.

These nests are considered a delicacy and have been eaten for thousands of years. They are sometimes called the “caviar of the Orient”.

The Chinese community has used edible bird’s nests in traditional Chinese medicine and as a therapeutic ingredient in soup.

Edible bird nests have been linked to a variety of benefits in animal research. However, there is little reliable scientific evidence to support these claims, and more studies are needed to better understand how nests can affect human health.

Keep in mind that some people may be allergic to edible bird’s nests. They are also associated with a risk of food poisoning.

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