‘Eating bugs’ used to be a term saved for the dinner table. Parents would shout empty threats to their children that if they don’t eat their vegetables, they’ll have to down a plate of creepy crawlers instead.
Today, eating bugs isn’t as disgusting – alright, maybe it still has the ick factor – or taboo as it once was. Indeed, it’s become an increasingly common food source; cricket flour is being used to amp the nutritional values of products like pasta and protein bars, for example.
Dutch researchers are now turning to another bug to leverage hidden nutritional value from. Mealworms are being tested with, turning the rigged worm into a source of solid or liquid fats to replace margarine or vegetable oils.
Why mealworms? Well, they’re seen as a good fat source, being relatively sustainable and easy to produce. They’re actually closer to supermarket shelves than you think: mealworm fats could make its debut in European grocery stores within the next few years.
The real query on the slippery slope is what everyone’s likely thinking: but how does mealworm oil taste?
“We’re not allowed to eat it because it’s made in a lab,” said Daylan Tzompa-Sosa, a researcher at Wageningen University and Research Center.
“It smells very mild … grassy. It’s not bad,” she said, describing the ‘pleasant yellow’ liquid.
The Dutch team created the fats and oils through a process called fractionation. This is heating a fat mixture, then cooling it at a controlled rate in vats of 0, 2, and 4 degrees Celsius of water for a day. The temperature change initiates fat crystals to grow in the solution, which are then separated into solids and liquids.
According to Tzompa-Sosa’s research, these man-made solids and liquids have zero trans fats, while the solid mealworm fat is low in saturated fats. This is a key feature consumers yearn for, even if at the expense of their ‘I don’t eat bugs’ policy.
Not everyone is entirely ready to toss out the Becel for mealworm alternatives, however. Alejandro Marangoni of the University of Guelph, who wasn’t involved in the research, is one such skeptic. His issue is with structure, namely that saturated fats are solid, and unsaturated fats are liquid. “Structure is important,” he said.
Tzompa-Sosa’s mealworm fats possess the same percentage of saturated and unsaturated fatty acid molecules, regardless of liquid or solid state. This implies that the solid formation might come from single chainlike fatty acids arranging themselves into triglycerides, a three-pronged molecule. Marangoni also made note of the lack of healthy omega-3 fatty acids, saying the mealworm oil looked alike to a 50% canola, 50% soybean oil mixture.
“They really need a triglyceride analysis before we can judge this properly to figure out what is happening during fractionation,” he said.
Tzompa-Sosa agreed. “The fatty acid profile,” or the kinds of fat molecules in each “of our liquid and solid fats were very similar. That doesn’t explain completely why we saw the differences. We need a chemical and physical analysis to explain why.”
There’s also the question if mealworm oil can scale to the lofty levels of other oils. Malaysia exported 25 million tons of palm oil this year – imagine how many worms would be needed to produce that take.
“That’s a lot of worms,” Marangoni said.
Mealworms aren’t the first insect that’s been re-purposed for edible fats. Protix, a European company, uses insect oils in their animal feed; Tzompa-Sosa’s team toyed with black soldier fly fat to bake cupcakes.
“We gave the cupcakes to 100 students and they couldn’t tell a difference” she said.
Tzompa-Sosa is adamant environmentally conscious Europeans will buy into bug fats within the next few years. The logistical hurdles must be overcome, namely which countries will be open to consumer insect oil in the market or not.
Regardless of how nutritious or tasty a mealworm meal might be, there’s no doubt it’ll take a while to get used to the sight of large vats of wriggling mealworms.