Insect innovation: Getting the right flavour and texture for your product

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As Switzerland prepares to legalise three insect species for food, we talk to one Finnish researcher on the best ways to process mealworms and crickets to get the optimal flavour and texture profile.

Insects are still awaiting novel food authorisation in the EU although this has not hampered innovation with a number of European companies already up and running and profiting from a legal grey area in certain cases. 

The overall attitude seems to be that while it's not an easy regulatory environment to navigate, this trend is about to explode and entrepreneurs don’t want to miss out - even if the novel food deadlock means that bricks and mortar retail channels are closed with sales instead coming from online shoppers.

One door in Europe is about to open, however.

On 1 May this year Switzerland is will legalise three species of insects for food, allowing mealworm larvae (Tenebrio molitor), adult house crickets (Acheta domesticus) and adult migratory locusts (Locusta migratoria) to be sold both whole and in pieces.

Insect innovators: Movers, shakers and six-legged players

British cricket start-up Next Step Foods makes protein Yumpa bars available in three flavours: tangy Thai, cocoa-a-go-go and peanut salt crunch.

UK-based Bush Grub calls itself 'the home of the unusual confectionery', selling Bug pops, Crispy Critters and Coco Bugs.

French start-up Jimini's manufactures dried, spiced crickets and mealworms as a savoury aperitif snack and healthy alternative to fried crisps.

Israeli player Flying Spark is hoping to offer manufacturers an alternative to crickets and mealworms with a nutty-flavoured flour made from fruit fly larvae.

Bugsolutely is a Thailand-based company founded by Italian entrepreneur Massimo Reverberi making cricket pasta with a mix of durum semolina flour, wheat flour and cricket flour.

Mophagy is a British supplier of insect powders and  whole crickets in flavours such as honey roasted and BBQ.

Not just for food, bugs are also worming their way into beverage product development. Anty Gin was created by craft gin producer The Cambridge Distillery and Danish food experimenters Nordic Food Lab using redwood ants.

The insects must have been bred specially for food purposes, have undergone the relevant procedures to eliminate pathogens such as freezing and the food packaging must bear both the common name and the scientific name.

One of the small European nation's biggest retailers, the Co-op, has already announced it will sell burgers made with insects sourced from Swiss firm Essento.

Taste, texture and fractionation

But what are insects actually like to work with as an ingredient?

At FoodMattersLive last year FoodNavigator spoke with British start-up Next Step Foods how it makes its Yumpa bar. “Cricket flour is relatively easy to produce,” said the company’s founder, Tony Askins. “Basically, crickets are chilled, blanched, baked and then milled. This minimal process is very popular with consumers.”

Meanwhile at VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland, food scientists have been experimenting with ways to process insects. It has developed a dry fractionation method which produces insect fractions with varying flavours and textures.

Research Scientist at VTT Katariina Rommi told FoodNavigator: “In the fractionation process, dried insects are defatted by supercritical carbon dioxide extraction, finely milled into a powder and separated into the coarse and fine fractions by air classification.

Insect fractions effectively bind water and fat making them particularly suitable as ingredients in solid food, VTT said.

It replaced 5 to 18% of meatball or falafel dough with insect fractions, and found that the protein content of the falafel balls increased by up to three times.

Chuck in some chitin

VTT has not yet tested the products in consumer tasting panels but Rommi said the meatballs and falafel made with the insect powder had a meaty taste, and this meaty flavour profile can be enhanced by varying the protein and chitin content.

Chitin, a polysaccharide fibre similar to cellulose, is also found in the exoskeletons of other crustaceans such as prawns.

“Insects do have a meat-like flavour, but instead of chitin, the flavour is expected to originate from other components such as the protein. VTT's insect fractions containing more chitin were in fact milder in flavour than those containing less chitin.”

Coarse fractions also change the texture, feeling rough on the tongue.

Another benefit of dry fractionation is that it’s a relatively simple technology which does not require water nor does it generate waste water, Rommi said, although some specialist equipment is required.

“SC-CO2 extraction is available at industrial scale, but requires some investments. Milling and air classification are industrial-scale processes. We have estimated that the investment costs of dry fractionation are lower than those of wet fractionation,” she said.

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