Insects. They’re what’s for dinner.
Or at least, they could be in the future.
That’s what about 120 volunteers from all over the Cal Poly Pomona campus were trying to determine in April as they taste tested a food product made of insects by Human Nutrition and Food Science students.
“I’m hoping to find a positive reaction to the idea of edible insect products,” says Jaynie Tao, a graduate student in agriculture.
Tao was part of a Cal Poly Pomona team that explored the edible insect idea last year as part of the Institute of Food Technologist Student Association’s product development competition. The competition’s theme was “Developing Solutions for Developing Countries.”
Insects can provide a potential food source with lots of nutrients, says Tao, who decided to continue the research from that competition as part of her master’s thesis.
“They have comparable levels of calories, protein, fat, vitamins, and minerals to even commonly eaten livestock [and poultry] such as beef, chicken and pork,” she says. “They also have environmental and economic advantages: Farming insects doesn’t require much, if any, land, nor do they produce much effluent into the environment. And they also require less feed but are quicker to produce.”
During the testing, volunteers sat at desks with a computer and a tray with four small plastic cups in front of them. Each of the cups had what appeared at first glance to be a clump of cooked brown rice.
But it wasn’t brown rice. Tao and a team of students had taken insect flours — which are made of dried, powdered crickets and locusts — and then created a unique rice-like food product using the Human Nutrition and Food Science’s single-screw, cold-forming extruder.
The insect flours are available online through Amazon or directly from the food manufacturers themselves. Some food producers have used edible insect flours in bakery formulas to create snack bars, cookies and even pizza dough, but no one is selling anything like what the students developed, says Olive Li, an assistant professor in the department who is supervising the research.
“There is no such pasta or extruded rice products containing edible insect flours,” Li says.
The goal of the testing was to collect sensory evaluations from the volunteers.
“This is a field in food science where panelists use their sense of sight, smell, touch, taste, and sometimes hearing, to evaluate food. In this particular study, we are using affective testing methods to give us an idea of consumer acceptance,” Tao says. “We ask our participants about their opinions on the appearance, aroma, mouthfeel, taste and their overall liking of our insect rice products.”
This wasn’t exactly like the Folgers’ taste test, where a restaurant secretly replaces the leading brand with Folgers: the volunteers knew they were going to eat something made with insects. The participants also were asked about their perceptions and experiences with entomophagy, which is the practice of consuming insects, Tao says.
The students tasted the mixture, and then recorded their observations on the computer.
Lilibel Navarrete, one of the students who participated, says she had never eaten insects before.
“The samples were bland, tasteless, smelly, and either too crunchy or too soggy,” she says. “I didn’t like any of them.”
“Two of them were terrible, but two were actually okay,” says Matthew Christian, another student who participated.
Both students were from a sociology class on contemporary social problems – SOC 301 – where Professor Jack Fong was discussing society’s relationship with food and hunger.
Fong said he was excited to hear about the edible insect research, because the consensus among food scholars is that the earth’s population is going to grow so large that there may not be enough land to satisfy demand for cattle, swine or poultry, all of which are resource hungry and depend heavily on intense and complex industrial production.
The world currently produces enough food to feed its 7 billion people — hunger and famine remain persistent problems because of breakdowns in food distribution systems rather than sufficient supply — but as the world’s population reaches 9 billion, our food production systems may also begin to fail as well, Fong says.
Insects might provide a solution to feeding the world, because they have many times the breeding capacity of most livestock, Fong says. In addition, there are about 40 tons of insect per person in the world, he says. Edible insects also require less infrastructure to produce, which would streamline the distribution process, he adds.
A big hurdle is getting American consumers to accept the idea of eating insects, Fong says. They view insects as pests or ecological threats, and marketing and advertising from the meat industry has conditioned them to think that it’s normal to eat beef, chicken and pork, he says.
“Because America, overall, has a good food distribution system, we have the luxury of being very discerning about food,” Fong says. “And to be disgusted by insects is a form of luxury as well, because it’s a choice we can make, whereas around the world, that choice may not be there.”
Eating insects won’t become the norm in the United States for at least another generation, but there are restaurants that are already serving crickets with condiments and spices, he says.
“I predict the acceptance of edible insects much like sushi. There was a time where no one could envision eating raw fish,” Fong says. “Now sushi is a mainstay. So I ultimately think it’s going to boil down to marketing. We’re a capitalist culture. If someone can do the perfecting of marketing, and make sure it looks palatable, people will eat it.”
“Most consumers can’t accept eating a bug when its body structure and features are kept intact,” she says. “But if insects are dried and ground into powder that can be incorporated into any food recipes or applications, the original ‘bug’ features are disguised, which may allow many consumers to accept the concept easily.”
Tao says she hopes students had a positive experience with the edible insect product.
“While it’s already a common tradition in developing countries,” she says, “I think with the numerous advantages of entomophagy (eating insects), developed countries like the United States can certainly benefit from this alternative food source.”
Navarrete says the experience altered her perspective in some ways — insects can be made visually appealing, she admits — but she’s not sold on them yet.
“I still think that insects are gross, crunchy and dirty,” she says. “I would not eat insects unless I had to.”
Christian says he can foresee a future in which insects are a common food source.
“But it will take a long time for society to accept it,” he says.