Eating insects such as mealworms could be a more sustainable way to get protein and meat flavors. Bloomberg Creative/Getty Images
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Meat consumption, especially if the meat is grown using factory farming, is a major cause of many environmental problems, including biodiversity loss, pollution and the climate crisis. Some scientists even say that going vegan is the single most important thing an individual can do to reduce their impact on the planet and its systems.
But what if you miss the taste of meat or really need more protein in your diet? Researchers at Wonkwang University in South Korea may have an answer for you: beetle larvae, also known as mealworms.
“Insects are a nutritious and healthy food source with high amounts of fatty acids, vitamins, minerals, fiber and high-quality protein, which are comparable to those found in meat,” said Hee Cho, Ph.D., of Wonkwang University, in a press release.
Cho is the principal investigator of a research team that tested the flavor profile of mealworms when cooked with sugar. They presented their findings Wednesday at the fall meeting of the American Chemical Society (ACS).
Mealworm is another word for the larvae of the yellow mealworm beetle, The Guardian explained. Although they have been used as pet food and as bait for fish, they are not widely consumed by people around the world. But the researchers thought that might change if they were used to create protein-rich flavors that were then added to other foods, the press release explained.
First, the researchers assessed the flavors of uncooked mealworms throughout their life cycle. They found that the larvae tended to smell like sweetcorn, soil, or shrimp.
Then they tried using different methods to cook the insects. Steaming the larvae produced stronger corn-like favors, while roasting or frying resulted in oily or shrimp-like odors. Finally, the team heated the worms with sugars to produce different taste samples. The samples were then taste tested by a panel of volunteers to judge which were the most “meatlike”.
“As a result of this study, 10 of the reaction flavors were optimized based on consumer preferences,” graduate student Hyeyoung Park said in the press release.
The study comes because there has been increased pressure to include insects in the diet worldwide.
“Many consumers like and need animal protein in our diet. However, traditional livestock farming emits more greenhouse gases than cars. On the other hand, insect farming requires only a fraction of the land, water and feed compared to traditional livestock farming,” Cho said, as reported by The Guardian.
The UN has even recommended expanding insect production and consumption to help feed the 9.7 billion people expected to live by 2050, the Daily Mail reported. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization notes that you can raise crickets with six times less food than cattle, four times less than sheep and two times less than pigs and broilers, while producing the same amount of protein.
Although Cho noted that insects are considered “superfoods” in some Asian, African and Latin American countries, they still raise eyebrows and make the stomachs of many Americans and Europeans churning, according to The Guardian. Therefore, adding an insect-based flavor to another food could be an ideal solution to introduce insect protein to the global market.