Sept. 9, 2022 – Move over salt and pepper, another seasoning is coming to the table that’s packed with protein: Mealworms.

Scientists have discovered a way to prepare insect larvae so they have a meat-like flavor that could be added to food as a source of protein, according to preliminary research presented at ACS Fall 2022, a national meeting of the American Chemical Society.

Eating insects isn't new to many people in Asia, Africa, and South America, where communities long ago recognized the nutritional benefits of arthropods other than the ones found in the sea like shrimp, crab, and lobster that many Americans already consume as delicacies. In several countries, fried mealworms are salty, crunchy snacks, and other insects, prepared in a variety of ways, are a major source of protein.

But that kind of mind over matter is a tougher sell in the U.S. and other countries where seeing insects on the menu makes people cringe. That's why a group of South Korean scientists decided to see if they could come up with something made of insects that might be more appealing to folks who haven't jumped on the bug-eating trend just yet.

The researchers started by investigating the different flavor profiles of mealworms – the larvae of yellow beetles – at different stages of their lives. Then they experimented with ways of cooking them. They found that when cooked with sugars, the mealworms had a hearty flavor that varied based on the ratio of sugar to powdered mealworm. With further experimentation and taste testing by volunteers, the researchers refined their technique until they had the 10 best meat-like flavors that could be used to season meals and could replace the more environmentally costly consumption of beef, pork, and other meat.

The environmental toll of pork and beef production – especially beef – includes methane emissions from the animals, greenhouse gases from producing livestock feed and transporting products, using fertilizer, massive amounts of water use, and habitat destruction and deforestation for grazing and farmland.

Insects and their larvae, on the other hand, require far fewer resources to breed and come with greater health benefits. Instead of the increased risk of cancer and heart disease that comes from eating too much red meat, insects like mealworms offer high-quality protein along with fatty acids, vitamins, minerals, and fiber, according to In Hee Cho, PhD, the study's lead researcher at Wonkwang University in South Korea.

Cho's team will continue tweaking their cooking methods to improve on the mealworms’ flavor, hoping that they can make them taste savory.

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SOURCES:

YouTube: “Cooking up mealworms into a tasty, healthful, ‘meat-like’ seasoning,” American Chemical Society Meeting Newsroom.

The Guardian: “Insects could give meaty taste to food – and help environment – scientists find.”

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