Birds are remarkable and fascinating creatures, able to glide through the sky with a degree of freedom we humans can only fantasize about.
In many cultures, including Asian traditions, birds are revered as symbols of prestige, owing to their association with the heavens.
Perhaps this is why the nests of certain species have been prized as a culinary delicacy for hundreds of years. To this day, they’re still regarded as a high end nutritious food with therapeutic properties in many parts of Asia.
This article reviews the culinary uses, nutrients, potential benefits, and downsides of edible bird’s nests.
Edible bird’s nests are also known as “Yan Wo”and “caviar of the East” in the Chinese community (
In traditional Chinese medicine, they’ve been used therapeutically since the Tang and Sung dynasties — regarded as a sign of power and status (
The nests are produced by the edible-nest swiftlet, a small bird native to Southeast Asia (
The world’s greatest flock of swiftlets lives in Indonesia, the largest producer of edible bird’s nests, followed by Malaysia, the most prolific producer of enthralling bird’s nests (
Although 24 species of swiftlets are found worldwide, only the white-nest swiftlets (Aerodramus fuciphagus) and the black-nest swiftlets (Aerodramus maximus) contribute to the lucrative market (
What are the nests made of?
The architecture of edible bird’s nests is marvelously unusual and resembles a hammock consisting of tightly woven threads. They can be white, yellow, or red.
The nests are constructed of hardened saliva regurgitated by swiftlets. They also contain feathers and other debris. Edible bird’s nests are not built from twigs or other kinds of plant material, as some people mistakenly believe (
Edible bird’s nests are meticulously cleaned of feathers, sand grains, and other debris with tweezers before being used in cooking (
Edible bird’s nests are a centuries-old delicacy. Edible-nest swiftlets, a species of bird native to Southeast Asia, build the nests from their saliva. The nests are used therapeutically in traditional Chinese medicine.
For centuries, the nests were harvested from limestone caves in Borneo, Malaysia — particularly the enormous Gomantong and Niah caves.
Today, edible bird’s nests are protected under the Wildlife Conservation Enactment of 1997. Only locals with permits can climb to the top of the caves twice a year, in February and July–September, to harvest. Unauthorized collectors may be fined and penalized (5).
Harvesting these nests is described as controversial by some internet communities. It’s claimed that those engaged in the business pay bribes to obtain access to the caves.
Today, the global market for edible bird’s nests is on the upswing, with most nests being farmed rather than collected from caves (6).
For centuries, the nests have been plucked from limestone caves in Borneo, Malaysia. The global market for edible bird’s nests is resurging. Today, most nests are farmed rather than being collected from caves.
Traditionally, the Chinese community has used these nests as a soup ingredient. 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 consumed by rulers and high officials. Even today, it’s considered one of the most expensive soups in the world.
To make it, the bird’s nest is infused in a double boiling process with rock sugar. The preparation process can last for hours (
The soup’s flavor is mild, with a somewhat gooey texture comparable to egg whites. In some specialty Asian restaurants, you’ll find it prepared as a main or entree on the menu, sometimes served with noodles, seafood, or vegetables.
The nest is popularly used as a soup ingredient in China. It was a status symbol and believed to be a restorative health tonic. To make it, the nest is infused in a double boiling process with rock sugar.
Both macronutrients and micronutrients are found in edible bird’s nests.
Carbohydrates, glycoproteins — molecules with protein and carbohydrate chains that support body functions — and trace elements like calcium, sodium, magnesium, zinc, manganese, and iron make up the key nutrients (7).
Edible bird’s nests also contain a plethora of bioactive compounds that might have health-promoting effects.
These include glucosamine, sialic acid, the structural components of fat called fatty acids, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and the building blocks of proteins called amino acids (7).
Carbohydrates, glycoproteins, and minerals like calcium and iron are the major nutrients in bird’s nests.
There are many claims that bird’s nests support human health, although research is lacking to support them.
Traditional Chinese medicine claims that edible bird’s nests work as a remedy for illnesses like tuberculosis, asthma, and stomach troubles (
It’s also said that edible bird’s nests might improve libido, strengthen immune function, enhance energy and metabolism, and stimulate circulation. These properties have even been researched in test-tube studies (
Nonetheless, these findings need to be confirmed with additional evidence.
May combat illness
It appears that some bioactive compounds found in edible bird’s nests could potentially hinder the flu virus (
Plus, three preliminary lab studies suggest that components of edible bird’s nests may be able to destroy rapidly growing cancer cells. However, the exact components showing anti-cancer properties are unknown at this time (
Nonetheless, further research is needed to support these findings.
There is also interest in the potential of edible bird’s nests as a therapeutic supplement for osteoarthritis and bone health.
Although data is scarce, animal research has observed increased bone strength after daily consumption of edible bird’s nest extract (
According to animal research, edible bird’s nests may have brain-protective properties (
Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, brain injury, and stroke are all linked to cognitive impairment, possibly due to inflammation in the brain (
One systematic review in animals showed that edible bird’s nests enhanced cognitive performance by lowering inflammation and oxidative stress (
Oxidative stress is when free radicals — molecules with disease-causing potential — damage your body’s cells by altering their chemical structures. It can lead to a cascade of adverse health effects.
Still, more research is needed before bird’s nests can be linked with improved brain health.
Could support diabetes management
High blood sugar levels promote oxidative stress and are a major contributing risk factor for heart disease in people with unmanaged diabetes.
Promisingly, mouse and test-tube research have demonstrated that bird’s nests could protect the blood vessels of people with diabetes from oxidative stress (
Still, more research is needed on the topic, especially in humans.
Edible bird’s nests have long been promoted as a beauty treatment, with claims that they moisturize, whiten, and protect the skin from oxidation (
In fact, proteins found in edible bird’s nests have been shown to protect the skin barrier and provide anti-aging properties (
According to a recent study, edible nests also improve the skin’s surface texture (13).
Further, some people believe that these nests, which have a collagen-like texture and structure, can strengthen facial collagen and improve sagging skin.
However, it’s still uncertain if swiftlet nests have any effect on collagen production and skin health.
According to animal studies, bird’s nests could potentially protect against the flu, support bone health, improve brain health, and more. However, there is little to no robust scientific evidence to substantiate these claims.
Some people are allergic to edible bird’s nests and could experience life-threatening anaphylaxis after consuming. The saliva of the swiftlets, insects eaten by the swiftlets, mites living in the nests, and cleaning practices of the nests may all be sources of allergens (
What’s more, bacteria found in edible bird’s nests might cause food poisoning. Microorganisms of concern include E. coli, Salmonella, Staphylococcus aureus, yeast, and mold (
It’s also worth noting that since bird’s nests are animal by-products, certain countries have stringent import limits for them. For example, this is to prevent the spread of the H5N1 avian influenza, also known as the bird flu (14).
Some people may be allergic to edible bird’s nests, potentially to a life-threatening degree. Furthermore, the nests can contain bacteria that cause food poisoning. Some countries limit the import of the nests due to a risk of spreading avian flu.
Edible bird’s nests are made from the saliva of swiftlets.
These nests are considered a delicacy and have been consumed for thousands of years. They’re sometimes referred to as the “caviar of the East.”
The Chinese community has used edible bird’s nests in traditional Chinese medicine and as a therapeutic ingredient in soup.
Edible bird’s nests have been linked to a variety of benefits in animal research. However, there is minimal reliable scientific evidence to support these assertions, and more studies are needed to better understand how the nests may affect human health.
Keep in mind that some people may be allergic to edible bird’s nests. They’re also associated with a risk of food poisoning.
Just one thing
Keep in mind: Swiftlets are a vulnerable species. The more nests that are destroyed, the closer swiftlets come to extinction. The Chinese government has banned the harvest of bird’s nests because swiftlet populations have dwindled in these areas.