Away From the Bench

The world outside of the lab

Beetle Juice: the next protein shake?

Michiel den Hartogh is in the kitchen assembling a “crispy cricket” concoction — complete with curried mayonnaise, crocodile pie and fried crickets — with the special care due any delicacy.

This isn’t a chef preparing for the next episode of Fear Factor.  This quote is from an article by Teri Schultz on the Netherlands restaurant Spacktakel and their chef experimenting with insects and worms in their recipes.  More of these kind of restaurants may not be that far off, with the European Union spending 3 million euros on insects-as-food research and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations assessing the potential of edible insects.

People have been eating bugs gathered from the wild for centuries.  There are thousands of insect species known to be safe for human consumption found throughout the world.  I think insects have turned up as a delicacy in some restaurants because it’s something different and could be the ‘next big thing.’  There seemed to be a trend with Kobe beef or local farm-fresh foods in many expensive restaurants over the past several years.  As local foods and Kobe beef become more and more common, chefs are looking for the next thing to tantalize customers.  Insects could be it.  If eating insects makes you shudder, how about the age-old luxury foods such as caviar and pâté?  Caviar are sturgeon eggs treated with salt to give them flavor and pâté is ground meat and fat blended to a spreadable paste.  Not that appetizing either, huh?

The biggest obstacles to eating bugs for most people are taste and consistency. The taste can always be altered by adding other foods to it, stewing it in a soup or sauce, or even frying it.  Preparing insects in these ways can also change the consistency, although some insects have exoskeletons that might have to be removed to avoid crunchiness.  In Japan, inago (grasshoppers) fried or boiled in sweetened soy sauce have been eaten for centuries.  Most likely, insects will be introduced for mass public consumption in the Western world through insect protein in powdered form and added into other foods.  (Insert joke about Jessica Seinfeld hiding spinach in her kid’s brownies here).  Unless they read the label in the grocery store, people might not even realize they are eating protein from insects.  Bear Grylls wishes he could be that lucky.

Photo copyright simplemathbakery.com

Insects have been known to be a good food source for years.  I found what appears to be a web 1.0 site from the late 1990’s/early 2000’s (complete with visitor counter!) at www.food-insects.com, which was created by Dr. Gene DeFoliart, now Professor Emeritus at UW-Madison.  Studies from his lab (and others) have measured high levels of digestable protein in insects (46-96% protein depending on the species, with digestability at 77-96%) including many essential amino acids (remember, those are the ones you must get from food sources).  Insect conversion of plant protein to body protein mass is much higher than cows (crickets are five times more efficient) and the protein content is comparable to vertebrate animals if the exoskeleton is removed.  The exoskeleton, which contains chitin, could then be used for other agricultural (fertilizer) or industrial (thickener, binder) uses.  Many different insect species (caterpillars, termites, grasshoppers) have high levels of minerals such as iron, copper, and zinc, as well as A and B  vitamins.

Insects as edible protein for humans could help the food industry end their battles with pink slime, feces contamination, hormone use, and animal housing conditions.  It would also make the FDA’s new ‘suggestion’ to reduce antibiotic use in farm animals moot.  Even though I am a meat-eater, I am concerned about the sustainability of large-mammal farming and how it affects the environment (methane gas, clear-cutting forests, etc.)  I don’t think beef, poultry, or pork will completely disappear, but the availability may decrease drastically in the future.

For now, I think the best way to use insects is for animal (non-human) feed.  There is a nice TEDx talk by Jason Drew in which he describes the forces behind his company’s plan (AgriProtein) to use fly larvae as animal feed, instead of feeding chickens and fish old chicken and fish parts.  This return to a more natural, mass-produced food for animals is a great idea.  Although free-range animals are best, the majority of our meat does not come from these animals.  Drew calculates that one kilogram of fly eggs can create 318 kilograms of protein in 72 hours by feeding off of blood waste from slaughterhouses.  The resulting larvae can be dried and powdered to add protein to any type of animal feed.  If this type of animal feed can be used for large-scale farm operations, it could drastically improve feed quality and pathogen transmission that we now have with animal ‘cannibalism’.

Currently, insects are an expensive delicacy for the Western world because there are not many companies producing insects for human consumption (although there are 20,000 insect ‘farmers’ in Thailand), but if mass production of ‘human-grade’ insects begins, they will become much cheaper than other animal meat.  In addition, I doubt there will be any movement to up-charge for healthier ‘organic’ or ‘free-range’ insects, which is a problem we currently have with other meat.  I’m interested to see if edible insects catch on in Europe and the U.S.  Perhaps in the future your spider roll at the sushi restaurant will actually be made of spider instead of soft-shell crab…but I’m also betting my mother will still not eat it.

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One thought on “Beetle Juice: the next protein shake?

  1. You’re counting your mom out, you can probably count me out for a while too.

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