A new seasoning smells like meat thanks to sugar — and mealworms

New research aims to help people get past the ick of eating insects

mealworms on a table, in a wooden spoon, and in a wooden bowl, surrounded by green leaves

Mealworms are part of what experts call the “big three” of edible insects. New research shows one way to make them more appetizing.

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A spoonful of sugar may help the mealworms go down.

Adding sugars to powdered, cooked mealworms creates a seasoning with an appetizing “meatlike” odor, researchers report August 24 at the American Chemical Society fall meeting in Chicago.

Some insects have been found to be an environmentally friendly alternative to other animal protein because they require less land and water to raise (SN: 5/11/19). But many people in the United States and other Western countries, where insects aren’t eaten widely, generally find the idea of chomping down on bugs unappetizing.

“There aren’t a lot of people ready to fry up a whole skillet of crickets and eat them fresh,” says Julie Lesnik, a biological anthropologist at Wayne State University in Detroit who wasn’t involved in the new research. Finding out how to make insect-based foods more appealing could be key to making them more mainstream.

And one successful insect-based product could have a snowball effect for similar food. “It’s really great that this research is happening, because at any point this might be the thing that people figure out and then it explodes,” says Brenden Campbell, an insect agriculturist based in Eugene, Ore. He has studied mealworms and created a company called Planet Bugs to, in part, make insect-based food products.

In a previous study, chemist In Hee Cho of Wonkwang University in South Korea and colleagues analyzed the odors given off by mealworms that were steamed, roasted or deep-fried. Steamed mealworms produced a sweet smell, like corn, while roasted and fried mealworms released chemicals more similar to meat and seafood.

In their latest work, the team then keyed in on what combinations of water, sugars and cooking time produced a particularly meaty smell, and tested these concoctions with volunteers to figure out which smelled the most appealing.  

Using insects ground up or in seasonings, like Cho’s team did, could help people get past their hesitations about eating whole bugs, says Amy Wright, who has written a book on eating bugs. (She, for one, has no qualms. A literature professor at Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, Tenn., Wright used to keep mealworms in her apartment, which she would use in sandwiches and guacamole.)

“There are plenty of things that are disgusting to us, but we have engineered around it,” Lesnik says. “We’re just seeing insects being treated like any other food, and yeah, we’re talking aroma … but that’s what the engineers of Doritos are doing.”

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Anil Oza is the summer 2022 science writing intern at Science News. He graduated from Cornell University with a degree in neurobiology and science communication.

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