Buzzing: What do insects taste like?
This week in Buzzing:
What do insects taste like? There are 2,000 answers.
The Q&A: Dr Teun Veldkamp from Susinchain on sustainability
Test Corner: Small Giants cricket crackers rock with hummus
Dear all in lockdown, I hope your fortnight has been productive. This week, I thought I’d answer a question people often ask me: what do insects taste like? Now, if I were a smarty pants, I’d probably answer something like: “How much time do you have? There are 2,000 species of edible insects.” My usual answer is more like: “It depends: crickets are a bit like prawns, and mealworms like almonds.”
The truth is, I have only tasted seven species of insects (mealworms, buffalo worms, crickets, black ants, silkworm, sakondry and grasshopper) so I couldn’t possibly provide a comprehensive overview of what insects taste like. Luckily, the good folks at the Nordic Food Lab have catalogued tasting notes for some 30 insects in their book On Eating Insects. Some sound truly delightful, others deeply unpleasant. I clearly need to go back to Thailand to try the Giant Water Bug (“intensely aromatic, tropical fruits, citrus, watermelon candy”) and Lychee Stink Bug (“Kaffir lime, coriander, apple skin with sweet notes of banana and tropical fruits”) but I am dreading the next research trip to East Africa where “lamb’s brain” was mentioned in the tasting notes for giant cricket and “sweetbreads, foie gras” for termite queens. The descriptions alone made me wretch.
This is obviously highly subjective – if you like offal, you may be thinking that giant crickets and termite queens will be do very nicely, thank you very much. I prefer citrusy flavours and am looking forward to trying different types of ants (especially in gin).
The other major consideration is texture: people are fearful of things that are too crunchy, chewy or slimy. A contact of mine who lived in Laos for a while described an insect he’d eaten there “with a kind of green mush inside”: no amount of money would make me try that. Interestingly, many of the most aromatic insects used in Thailand are used in curry pastes because of their flavour rather than as standalone bugs to eat.
One thing that’s struck me however is that anyone I know who has eaten insects extensively says that commercially farmed insects taste nothing like those in the wild. Like all animals, insects are what they eat, and they have a much more varied diet in the wild than in a commercial farm.
I wonder whether small batch/home grown production will make a difference: even the finest organic tomatoes can’t hold a candle to the ones we grow at our allotment. Perhaps our own mealworms will crush the competition in a blind tasting too?! (I received my mealworm kit last week and am now waiting for the imminent arrival of 300 mealworm adult beetles to start my colony - more on that in a fortnight).
Anyway, this is my 9th newsletter and I’d love to hear what you think of it so far: has it made you curious? Have you tried insects as a result? Do you have a favourite insect? Is there anything else you’d like me to cover? You can reply to the newsletter or hit me up on Twitter @EmilieFilou. And do please share it amongst your friends and colleagues.
The Q&A: Dr Teun Veldkamp, Wageningen University
Dr Teun Veldkamp is a senior researcher in animal feed and insects as feed at Wageningen University & Research in the Netherlands. He also coordinates Sustainable Insects Chain (Susinchain), a four-year project funded by the European Union (€8.6 million) that aims to develop the use of insecta as food and feed by overcoming existing barriers (anything from knowledge gaps to regulatory pitfalls and sceptical consumers). The project includes 18 industry players and 17 research institutions from all over Europe. The sheer size and scope of the endeavour is testimony to the sector’s ambition but I feel it also speaks volume about the EU’s conviction that this is a sector worth supporting.
Many people argue that the use of insects as food is more sustainable than the use of insects as animal feed. Susinchain is tackling both. What do you think?
The most sustainable way is to consume insects as food directly. But there is an issue around consumer acceptance in Europe: the disgust factor is still there and that’s something we’re exploring in Susinchain. On the other hand, we see that the animal feed industry in Europe has high demand for insect protein, that’s the reason why we chose to look at feed too: there is already a market and we can make faster progress on sustainability by looking at both food and feed.
Also, the Covid-19 pandemic has focused people on the importance of having more local production. We are trying to create local protein to reduce large imports from outside the EU [such as soy, which is used in animal feed] and that could be very beneficial for the sector.
What do you make of the idea of feeding insects high-risk organic material such as manure?
We chose to focus on allowed substrates [insect feed] at Susinchain so that we could get the ball rolling but I think the big future for insects is as waste converters. There are a lot of projects going in this direction, notably with manure. Most research is focusing on safety because there may be medicine or pesticides residue, which would affect the production of insects.
How did the Netherlands become the Silicon Valley of insect protein?
Wageningen University has always been strong in entomology. And there are a couple of local companies that have been breeding insects for several decades, such as Protifarm [previously known as Kreca, which initially reared insects for the exotic pet food market, and now for human food] and Koppert Biological Systems [they specialise in biological control but have also set up Bestico, a Black Soldier Fly company]. Also, the ministry of agriculture has been willing to support start-ups in the sector by matching commercial finance with public funds. This has been a great boost for industry.
Test Corner: Small Giants cricket crackers
Last week, I bought three packets of the newly-launched Small Giants cricket crackers. I started with the tomato and oregano-flavoured ones, which took me right back to suburban Paris in the 1980s, when my parents had friends over for dinner and we were allowed to hang around for the apéritif before going to bed: they served small savoury biscuits that looked like mini-pizzas and tasted exactly like these crackers. A real Proustian moment.
Anyway, I liked the flavour but felt they were crying for a bowl of hummus as they are a tad dry on their own. So I tried the rosemary and thyme crackers with hummus the next day and I can confirm that the crackers make the perfect vehicle for dips. I found the herb flavour was less distinctive than the tomato and oregano, however; and I really couldn’t get the spices in the turmeric and smoked paprika. Most surprisingly, I couldn’t taste cricket in any of them.
The kids liked them, and they’d make a good addition to a picnic but I can’t think of many other occasions when I would have them.
Overall, I think if the crackers were stocked by my local supermarket, I would probably add them to my weekly shop every now and then. But as things stand, you have to buy direct from their website, which is a hassle, not to mention the fact that the crackers are relatively pricey (£8.25 for three packets, £14.99 for eight). I have no doubt these hurdles will come down with time, but until then, Small Giants crackers will remain a one-off rather than a regular.
Note: I do not accept freebies and buy all the products I try.
Hi, I’m Emilie Filou, a freelance journalist. I specialise in business and sustainability issues and have a long-standing interest in Africa. If you liked Buzzing, please share with friends and colleagues, or buy me a coffee. My funky cricket avatar was designed by Sheila Lukeni.