Anna Rettore isn’t sure yet why powdered crickets smell like chocolate.
“I have to do an analysis of the aromatic compounds,” she said, on Tuesday in one of the food laboratories at Dublin Institute of Technology on Cathal Brugha Street.
On the worktop in front of her are a couple of pouches, one with the cricket powder, another with mealworm powder. There’s also a tub of ground silkworm pupae, bought from a silkworm research centre in Italy.
“They are oven-roasted and you grind them, you can freeze-dry them,” she said, pointing over to the freeze-dryer, a machine with lots of tubes hanging out. Inside the tub, the brown silkworm powder has an earthy smell, a bit like the inside of a hamster cage.
The cricket powder smells different. “In my experiments, I have to mix them with water, and especially if its salt water, then really the lab is full of a chocolate aroma,” says Rettore.
Ripe for Research
Rettore — and a growing number of scientists — believe that edible insects could be part of the answer to some of the future challenges facing how we feed the world.
“The population is going to increase, there will be a crisis in the food system, that is unfortunately true,” she says. One of the causes of the crisis: the rising costs of animal protein alongside an increasing demand for protein among middle classes.
Rich in proteins and minerals, insects are a more-sustainable alternative to beef or livestock, she says. “They are sustainable to grow, very efficient at converting what they eat into body mass,” she said, because they don’t waste it on energy to keep their body temperatures up.
Rettore came to the field of edible insects after studying environmental science. She worked for a while at the Esapolis museum in Padua in northern Italy, as an entomological guide, introducing kids to insects.
Her interest grew from there. “I started to be more and more involved in the concept of entomology,” she said.
At the end of last year, she started this four-year PhD project at Dublin Institute of Technology, looking at potential ways to develop food products with proteins from insects.
By working out the nutritional value and properties of two insect ingredients — flours and protein extracts — Rettore hopes to learn how they can best be used in delicious, novel foods.
When people recoil from insects, that’s down to a mental barrier, said Rettore. “Fragments of insects are present in all our food, and we eat honey without any kind of … it’s more about breaking this barrier.”
Pointing out that it’s good for the world to eat insects and that they’re healthy isn’t going to win everybody over. “The only way to do it is to produce enjoyable food products,” she says.
According to the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, more than 1,900 species of insects have reportedly been used as food around the world.
It’s unclear why insect-eating is significantly less prevalent in European countries than in some other parts of the world.
“An explanation could be [that] in tropical countries, there is much more availability of insects, they are bigger, available all the year,” says Rettore.
There are a few nearby places where people still nibble on them though, she says. In Fruili in Italy, she’s found one place where they eat the legs of poisonous grasshoppers.
But while there are a growing number of insect-food start-ups in recent years in North America and Europe, there hasn’t been much uptake in Ireland.
The rules for selling insect-based products here are a bit complicated, but, at the moment, it’s the Food Safety Authority of Ireland that determines if something can be sold here.
It’s been an easy role so far. “We’ve received no applications to date, so therefore, haven’t authorised any,” said Jane Ryder, a spokesperson for the FSAI.
Bord Bia hasn’t done any surveys of whether people in Ireland would want to fill their plates with insects. But if a 2014 survey in the UK is anything to go by, it wouldn’t be an easy sell.
The survey found that, of 2,000 consumers in the UK who were asked, 52 percent were aware that insects were an alternative source of protein, but 56 percent said they wouldn’t try foods containing insects.
There are different ways to eat insects, though — either whole, or ground into flour, or you can just extract the protein. The last two are more likely to be taken up, given that we like to eat things that look familiar.
“We’re not talking about adding legs and bodies and eyes, we’re looking at powders and extracts from it,” said Roisin Burke, who teaches at DIT’s Culinary Arts and Food Technology School.
“There’s definitely a market there for people who are willing to do it, and for health-conscious people as well,” she said.
Rettore has picked three insects to hone in on: the Gryllodes sigillatus cricket, the Bombyx mori silkworm, and the Tenebrio molitor mealworm. The plan is to extract protein from them and work out what the flour and protein extract can be used for.
“We’re focusing on characterisation of the ingredients,” says Rettore. “We need to know exactly what are the proteins that are there. Are they digestible? Which are the functional properties?”
By functional properties, she means how the protein extracts and powders behave. How do they interact with water or with oil? What makes them crunchier or softer? Can they form foams or gels — both interesting properties when you’re trying to develop food.
She chose silkworms because their pupae are by-products of the silk industry, and they have fatty acids and other nutrients. Mealworm larvae are also easy to find, so they were another good choice.
So far, Rettore has characterised cricket flour and says some of its properties can improve recipes. It’s so protein-rich that it’s better to mix it with other flours, she says, and “cricket flour can enhance the emulsifying stability, also when it’s added to other flours like wheat or soya”.
“The idea is to give insight on how is best to use these kinds of ingredients,” she said. So, they’ll know which flour is good for baking, or which is good to gellify.
So far, it’s early days.
Once Rettore has worked out how all the flours and protein extracts behave, and checked in with consumers, they’ll look to develop a couple of food products. Probably, using molecular gastronomy principles to try to make something that we won’t just eat because it seems like the right thing to do, but because it’s tasty, too.