Want more umami? This is the science-backed seasoning you need
Forget sneaking in vegetables — sneak insects into your food instead.
Everyone has a favorite seasoning they swear by, whether it’s a hearty dose of granulated garlic, a sprinkle of MSG, or a generous heaping of the Trader Joe’s cult classic, Everything But The Bagel.
But what if I told you that you might want to make room in your spice rack for … mealworms?
Scientists in South Korea have found a way to turn mealworms — the larvae of the darkling beetle, or Tenebrio molitor — into a seasoning that creates a “meat-like” umami flavor, according to new research from South Korea’s Wonkwang University that was presented Wednesday at a meeting of the American Chemical Society.
In an attempt to make these resident creepy crawlers more palatable to more people’s tastebuds and earn them widespread recognition as a bona fide food, mealworms could become a sustainable source of protein as the human population swells beyond the supply of animal meat. And don’t forget the hefty environmental cost of meat production.
A quarter of the world eats bugs on the regular, though Western populations aren’t generally enticed. But this new work could tip the culinary milieu toward crawling critters.
Here’s the background — Across Asia, particularly in the southeast region, mealworms and other bugs like silkworms, grasshoppers, and bamboo caterpillars have long been considered a delicacy and common street food.
This is for good reason: Several studies over the last few decades have found that edible insects like mealworms, despite their small size, are a good source of fiber, protein, and fat and also contain a variety of vitamins and minerals. In 2013, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization suggested edible insects might be the way to go as a future food source. But only in recent years have mealworms and other insects like migratory locusts (think grasshoppers and crickets) been widely recognized as meals.
“There is a great barrier [to] eating insects, independent of which species it may be,” Karin Wendin, a food scientist at Kristianstad University in Sweden who wasn’t involved in the study, tells Inverse. “Thus, we use some mealworms as an example … we need to show different ways of how to use them, as well as taste them and find good ways of how to inform consumers of benefits including them in a daily diet.”
One way to do it is a bit sneaky: Slipping it in a crushed or powder form as a food additive, In Hee Cho, the study’s lead researcher and a food scientist at Wonkwang University, said in a media briefing.
But when it comes to the flavors of mealworm-derived additives, not much is known about their aroma profiles — the unique smorgasbord of flavors sensed by our tastebuds — when we eat the bugs raw or after conventional cooking methods like steaming, roasting, and frying. It’s not hard to imagine, then, that to get folks on board with crunching on mealworms, finding ways to fine-tune their tang is key.
How they did it — Throughout their life cycle, mealworms pass through distinct stages: egg, larva, pupa, and adult. Cho and her colleagues examined the individual chemicals the creatures naturally produce as they mature and found those compounds were mostly volatile hydrocarbons, which evaporate and give off a scent. For example, the researchers at discovered raw larvae apparently have wet, earthy, shrimp-like, and sweet corn-like aromas.
By comparing a mealworm’s savoriness across its life cycle, which lasts three months on average, the researchers investigated how different cooking methods affected a larva’s flavors.
Steamed mealworms (trust me, don’t try to visualize it) exhibited a more enhanced sweet corn smell. Roasted and deep-fried mealworms (please do not Google) gave off more of a shrimpy essence and a fried oil mouthfeel. According to the researchers, the chemicals evoked from roasting and frying these insects — pyrazines, alcohols, and aldehydes — are similar to ones that appear in cooked meat or seafood.
But going all Guy Fieri on itty bitty mealworms was not the only thing the researchers did.
Reaction flavors, also known as process flavors, develop when proteins and sugar are heated together. These include the rich taste of a seared ribeye steak, the toasty brown on bread, or the crispy edges around a fried egg. The team concocted different ratios of powdered mealworm to sugar and identified 98 volatile compounds that contributed to the taste of each of these mixtures.
Afterward, a panel of taste testers braved samples of the caramelized mealworms to see which ones had the meatiest odor.
“As a result of this study, 10 of the reaction flavors were optimized based on consumer preferences,” Hyeyoung Park, a graduate student at Wonkwang University involved in the study, said in a press release.
Why it matters — Given commercial meat production’s massive carbon footprint and sprawling land requirements, scientists increasingly are turning to insects to find sustainable nutrition solutions.
“[Eating] insects is truly eco-friendly and more efficient in comparison to typical livestock,” says Cho. “Insect farming requires just a fraction of the land, water, and feed in comparison to tradition livestock farming.”
There are also potential health benefits. Studies have found that edible insects like grasshoppers, silkworms, and crickets may offer a rich source of antioxidants. Other studies show that certain “future foods,” which include insect larvae, will be crucial in the event our planet becomes strapped for plant- or animal-sourced nutrition (more crucially, these future foods are risk-resilient).
But to anyone who isn't a cicada-eating keto enthusiast, the prospect of chomping down on desiccated crickets or fried mealworms isn’t exactly appetizing.
This is why Cho and her colleagues are hoping that a delicious seasoning, which looks nothing like the mealworm it started as, may encourage the insect-hesitant eater to regularly partake in some nutritious, protein-rich grub.
Mealworms might not be for everyone, though. If you’ve got a shrimp or dust mite allergy, you’re more likely to experience a reaction whether you eat the insect whole or in powdered form.
What’s next — Researchers are still tinkering with the seasoning in their test kitchen to further optimize the taste and prevent undesirable or off-flavors in the final product. If all goes well, who knows, you might one day be up to sprinkling it on top of your salmon bowl for an extra kick of umami.