The black ants could have been mistaken for caviar from a distance.
At Sun King Brewery Tuesday evening, Brooklyn-based Chef Joseph Yoon sprinkled them carefully on top of a shrimp and cucumber slice. Only when you get close can you see the legs.
And apparently, the ants add a nice citric tang.
Yoon created an eye-catching spread of edible insect hors’ d’oeuvres Tuesday evening at the opening reception to a planning conference held by Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis’ School of Science.
Its mission: plan its new Center for Insects as Feed and Food, which could be funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation.
Partnering with Texas A&M and Mississippi State University, the center will bring together researchers and industry leaders to identify major issues and questions of raising insects for human consumption.
Researchers will then work to answer those questions. The plan for the national research center will be pitched to the foundation in December, but IUPUI won’t hear back until next fall.
IUPUI associate professor Christine Picard, also director of the Forensic and Investigative Sciences Program, said they received a small, internal grant 2½ years ago to explore the possibility. They then applied for the National Science Foundation’s Industry University Collaborative Research Center program.
The event kicked off two days of meetings and speakers on the edible insect industry.
The world’s population will likely hit 9 billion people by 2050, a United Nations 2013 report says, and edible insects provide one way of addressing food insecurity in a world where more than 820 million people go hungry.
Around two billion people in the world already eat insects. And many in the western world consume bugs, or insect products, without knowing. The Food and Drug Administration allows for specific amounts of insects — parts, filth or whole — in food.
That said, people were bugged when they found out in 2012 that Starbucks was using a dye derived from beetles. (Starbucks later removed the ingredient.)
Still, insects actually offer a sustainable food source.Take the cricket. It can be ground up into a flour or baked into brownies, like chef Yoon did Tuesday night.
Insects offer a sustainable, healthy way to feed the future
Ti Ericksson stores a few bags of silkworm pupae in his freezer. He grew up in Vietnam, where eating the pupae was typical, before moving to the United States at age 14.
“It’s a nice combination of eating sustainably and recycling, while taking advantage of all the resources you have,” said Ericksson, now doing post-doctorate work at IUPUI through Beta Hatch, a company based out of Washington state.
He likes to make stir fry with the pupae, seasoning them with salt, garlic and green onions.
But insects have more than just additional protein to offer.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations report, insects need less feed to create food, emit significantly fewer greenhouse gases (10-100 times less than pigs), use less water and take up less space.
The sustainability of insects as food and feed is on the brink of blowing up, said IUPUI researcher Picard, who organized Tuesday’s event.
“If what’s happening with the plant protein market is any indication,” Picard said in a phone interview before the event, “there’s such a huge need for the world to have sustainable agriculture to increase the amount of protein that is produced without destroying the environment.”
Insects, Picard said, are poised to be the answer.
Cockroaches, which were not served at Wednesday’s tasting, offer one of the top protein percentages of edible insects with 57 grams, according to a 2013 study, the “Nutritional composition and safety aspects of edible insects.” That said, roaches aren’t exactly loved in most U.S. households.
Beetles and grubs are next on the protein list, averaging a 41% protein makeup. Highest on the protein list, however, are grasshoppers and crickets, at 61% protein.
In fact, insects like crickets have comparable protein levels to cows and pigs, sometimes even exceeding that level.
And bug farming can be as advanced or as simple as needed.
Jeff Tomberlin, an entomology professor at Texas A&M, said the farming of insects ranges from some two-by-fours and chicken wire in a backyard to robotics.
Still, it’s not all about nutrition. Insects, according to the UN report, are usually eaten because of their taste. For instance, notable chef José Andrés’ Oyamel Cocina Mexicana restaurant in Washington, D.C. offers chapulines (grasshopper) tacos, the most expensive taco, along with goat, on the menu at $5.
Industry faces lack of regulations, the ‘yuck’ factor
Sonny Ramaswamy, the self-described world’s expert on insect sex and former head of the United States Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture, said the two biggest challenges facing the industry are regulations and the “yuck” factor.
While the FDA considers insects considered food — if that’s the intended use — the industry hasn’t been heavily regulated. Insects raised for human consumption must be clean, produced under sanitary conditions and properly labeled. Insects, like seafood, are under the purview of the FDA. Ramaswamy said regulations are needed to ensure food safety.
Then there is the “yuck” factor. The western palette, Ramaswamy said, has been tailored to avoid all things creepy-crawly.
Moms or grandmas would say, “‘oh no, no, no, don’t touch that, it’s bad,'” Ramaswamy said. “You get this aversion; it’s called aversion learning. If you go to Vietnam or Thailand, they don’t react like that.”
But the instant reaction to dodge insects in America is one that’s changing. The change, experts say, is similar to how foods such as lobster and shrimp became popular, or even the first time humans tried to eat an egg.
Studies show insects are closely related to crustacea like shrimp and lobster. Shrimp have been called the “insect of the ocean” and lobsters are widely known as the “cockroach of the sea.”
“If a person can eat a shrimp or a lobster, I mean holy moly man, lobster is one of the most expensive foods you can eat,” Ramaswamy said. “Why not insects?”
The Center for Insects as Feed and Food would address the perception most Americans have of insects.
But regardless of what people think, said Virginia Emery, CEO and founder of Beta Hatch, the critters are still part of the food system.
“We don’t have to convince chickens or fish that bugs are delicious,” Emery said.
She asked people to keep an open mind when it comes to snacking on insects. Even if someone tastes one bug they don’t like, there are more than 1,900 others to try.
The distaste for insects sticks mostly with the U.S. and Europe. Eating bugs in most other countries is normal. Andreas Baumann, head of research and development at a Switzerland-based company that provides machines in the industry, said that while the country’s two main retailers carry insect products, “it’s still a niche of a niche.”
Another issue facing the industry is the lack of supply. Beta Hatch focuses on producing mealworms to be used in feed for poultry, fish and pet food (yes, to feed your dogs and cats). But for there to be enough insects for them to be used as a sustainable food source, companies have to produce trillions.
That said, it’s difficult to produce bugs on that scale, Emery said, though companies are working to improve insect production systems.
The magic of creating food
Chef Yoon drizzled honey over thin apple slices before carefully topping them with vespula flaviceps: wasps. He sprinkled weaver ants over a watermelon and roasted beet kabob, decorated in a balsamic glaze.
Yoon is on a mission, spreading awareness of edible insects through his company, Brooklyn Bugs.
Each time he uses a new bug, Yoon said, he treats it like any other ingredient and works to understand its flavor profile.
“To me, they’re the magicians,” Tomberlin said. “They understand the properties of the ingredient and how it can be transformed into something that most people wouldn’t even think of.”
That’s what Yoon aims to do. While some of the dishes he presented Tuesday evening had the insects sprinkled on top, others saw whole critters baked, like cricket brownies, or ground up, like in the mealworm gougeres.
Yoon also pushes for the integration of insects into everyday culture — something Tomberlin also sees happening in the future.
“I think what you’ll see with the industry as it evolves and grows, it will go beyond a fad,” Tomberlin said. “It will be considered a norm.”