Insects for Dinner

Fresh chopped basil. Marinated, roasted red peppers, tomatoes and garlic. Crostini and whole wheat pasta. Dark chocolate chunk brownies with a raspberry drizzle. And a secret ingredient: powdered crickets. 

With the global population anticipated to exceed 9.5 billion by 2050, food scientists are seeking alternative ways to feed the growing masses. Crickets, a traditional cuisine in many cultures both in Africa and Asia, are rich in nutrients and protein. For that reason, they and other insects are beginning to draw the attention of scientists seeking new food alternatives moving forward. 

Food science graduate student Isaac Ho, under the guidance of Professor Amy Lammert, spent two years researching various angles of insect-based food products, from consumer and market trends on the acceptability of insects in food to developing products people can directly test. In May, he led a series of sensory tests gauging participants’ perception of eating crickets in a three-course meal. 

Ho, who graduated in June, was enrolled in the Food Science and Nutrition Department’s blended program which allows students to pursue a joint bachelor’s and master’s degree. He won second place in the 36th annual California State University Student Research Competition in April for his research on the mind-sets of early adopters of insect-based food products. Ho’s research seeks to identify early adopter mind-sets of insect-based food products and determine product features early adopters would prefer in an insect-based food product, and the differences in perceptions in different countries. 

Ho’s research is supported by market indicators that suggest crickets as food could soon be a burgeoning industry. The global crickets market is expected to reach $3.5 billion by 2029 as people seek alternative forms of protein. 

“No one alternative will meet the needs of every consumer,” Ho said. “The best way to find different options is to look into creating products that will actually appeal to people on a sensory level.” Ho acknowledges that crickets are a tougher sell than some alternative proteins – especially in western countries where people tend to view eating insects as taboo.

“We do a lot of work in the U.S. to keep insects and pests out of our food and plants and now we are saying let’s eat them,” Lammert said. “But we aren’t talking about insects plucked from the wild. They will be farmed prior to being harvested for consumption – there do have to be appropriate farming practices in place.”   

Prior research done at Cal Poly by graduate and undergraduate students, including Michelangelo Serpico, who came to Cal Poly from the Basque Culinary Center in Spain to do research with Lammert, indicate that emotions play a large role in people’s connections with food – including edible insects. 

“We are starting to see trends in acceptability of trying new foods that are typically outside of a consumer’s comfort level,” Lammert said. “Through sensory analysis we are seeking to better understand their emotions before and after trying a product – which can be an indirect measure of liking it.”

Ho evaluated the responses of more than 100 people after they ate a three-course meal consisting of bruschetta, pasta, and a raspberry chocolate brownie topped with whipped cream, twice over a two-week period. Students in an advanced culinary class helped to prepare the foods, using a careful recipe devised by Ho. Participants were made aware that they may be eating insects, but not told specifically in which dish or when. They were queried not only about the taste of the food they were eating, but about their emotional response. Were they feeling adventurous or a bit anxious? 

“It’s one thing to introduce eating insects in subtle usable ways such as cooking with cricket powder,” said Lammert. “Seeing an eye or a leg in their food would be a quick, hard no for a lot of people.” Those products also need to increase the nutritional content of what is being prepared, as well as increasing the quality of the product. “If a food product doesn’t meet consumer needs, then it won’t sell,” she said. 

“I believe we will see insect consumption become mainstream,” Ho said. “Once more regulations are in place and people in the food industry take the lead this can indeed be used as a sustainable alternative to other protein sources, then we’ll start to see eating crickets become more popular or more relevant.”


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