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  • Insects are a known sustainable source of protein consumed by millions of people around the world.
  • However, most Westerners find the idea of eating insects unappealing.
  • As the global population grows along with concerns of food shortages in the future, scientists are developing ways to make sustainable food sources like mealworms more palatable.
  • Researchers say they’ve created an appealing meat substitute from mealworms and recently presented their work at the fall meeting of the American Chemical Society.

At least 2 billion people eat insects as part of their diets, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Even so, fried grasshoppers remain a hard sell in much of the Western world.

Insects are a sustainable food source often packed with protein. As such, scientists are developing ways to make them more palatable.

South Korean researchers recently added to that growing body of work and developed a desirable “meat-like” texture from yellow mealworm beetle larvae (Tenebrio molitor) by cooking it with sugar. According to a press release, scientists believe that mealworms “could someday be used in convenience foods as a tasty source of extra protein.”

Today, their research was presented at the fall meeting of the American Chemical Society (ACS).

For the research, In Hee Cho, principal investigator and a professor in the department of food science and biotechnology at Wonkwang University in South Korea, led a team of scientists who compared the aromas of mealworms throughout their life cycles.

Each stage — egg, larva, pupa, adult — gave off scents, the researchers found. Raw larvae, for instance, gave a scent of “wet soil-like, shrimp-like and sweet corn-like aromas.”

Next, the scientists compared the flavors that developed when mealworm larvae were cooked by different methods. Mealworms roasted and fried in oil produced flavor compounds that included pyrazines, alcohols, and aldehydes (an organic compound), which were similar to flavor compounds found when meat and seafood are cooked.

A member of the research team then tested different manufacturing conditions and ratios of powdered mealworms and sugars. This produced different reaction flavors, the flavors that result from heating a protein and sugar. The team then presented different samples to a panel of volunteers who provided feedback about which had the most favorable “meat-like odor.”

10 reaction flavors were selected. Reaction flavors exhibiting larger amounts of garlic powder were rated as more positive. Reaction flavors with more methionine were rated as more negative.

The researchers say they plan to continue studying the impact of the cooking process of mealworms to reduce undesirable flavors.

This type of research is key to figuring out how to prepare mealworms to appeal to the masses, according to Cassandra Maya, a PhD fellow at the department of nutrition, exercise, and sports at the University of Copenhagen, not involved in the new research.

“Smell is often the first sense that interacts with food,” Maya explained to Medical News Today.

“Think of walking into a room where someone has just baked chocolate chip cookies. An appealing smell can increase [the] acceptability of foods. In order for insects to be widely accepted, they must be appealing to all the senses. This includes avoiding ‘yucky’ textures, smells, and tastes.”

– Cassandra Maya, PhD fellow at the department of nutrition, exercise, and sports at the University of Copenhagen

By 2050, the global population is expected to reach 9.7 billion people, according to the World Population Data Sheet. That’s a lot of mouths to feed.

“Sustainability is a huge driving factor in edible insect research, Maya said. “We need to explore alternative proteins to feed the growing population and reduce the tension on our current food system. “Mealworms are a suitable alternative because they are nutritious and less resource-intensive than traditional livestock.”

A 2012 study found it takes 2 to 10 times less agricultural land to produce 1 kilogram of insect protein compared to producing 1 kilogram of protein from pigs or cattle.

Mealworm studies from 2015 and 2017 reported that the water footprint or the amount of freshwater used to produce the food per edible ton of mealworms is comparable to that of chicken meat and 3.5 times lower than that of beef.

Similarly, another study from 2010 found that mealworms produce lower levels of greenhouse gases and ammonia than traditional livestock.

“The current farming practice has already negatively impacted our environment,” Changqi Liu, PhD, an associate professor of the school of exercise and nutritional sciences at the College of Health and Human Services at San Diego State University, who was not involved in the new research, told MNT.

“We have to find more sustainable ways to meet the food demand. I think this alternative, more sustainable protein sources are [a] very important part of these solutions to these challenges.”

– Changqi Liu, associate professor of the school of exercise and nutritional sciences at San Diego State University

Maya explained that mealworms offer solid nutritional value.

“The nutrient composition of mealworms can vary by processing method (raw vs dried), developmental stage, and even diet, but generally contain high quality protein in comparable values to traditional meat choices,” she said.

In fact, research from 2017 shows that mealworms are rich in polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs), a healthy fat, are categorized as a source of zinc and niacin, and are high in magnesium and pyridoxine, riboflavin, folate, and vitamin B-12.

Maya added that she has tried mealworms cooked in various ways and likes the taste.

“It depends how they are prepared, but I always found dried mealworms a bit nutty,” she said.

Dr. Liu said he would like to see more studies like the research presented at ACS which characterizes the flavor profiles of mealworms.

“I think it’s very important for consumer acceptance — they have to taste good,” he said.

“There are already disgust factors and barriers keeping people from eating insects. I think understanding their flavor is very important for developing an acceptable product for the consumers.”

Maya agreed: “We must continue to explore ways [to] increase acceptability and to integrate insects like mealworms into everyday meals,” she said.

“The right laws need to be in place to make edible insects safe and available to all. In order for mealworms to make a difference, people need to eat them.”

– Cassandra Maya, PhD fellow at the department of nutrition, exercise, and sports at the University of Copenhagen