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Sugar’s role in future foods: insects and arthropods
Humans have eaten insects for thousands of years, but after centuries off the menu—in the Western world at least—they are making a comeback. Across the rest of the planet, however, people still eat around 2000 species of them. Like plant-based food, insect-based products will need to meet the needs of consumers for colour, texture, taste and mouthfeel. What role will sugar have to play?
Foods of the future: What will they look like?
There’s no doubt that today’s consumers are increasingly demanding alternative foods. Whether for health reasons, climate change or animal welfare, statistics show the unstoppable rise of plant-based eating, with businesses launching a constant flow of new vegan products, and restaurants, while fast-food chains seem to give us new plant-based options every week.
But animal protein—including our traditional beef, pork, lamb and chicken—provides essential nutrients that science still struggles to reproduce in plant-based substitutes.
To get the full range of proteins, fats, vitamins and minerals that animal products bestow, we need to eat a huge range of plants and protein substitutes.
One study showed that mothers on plant-based diets during pregnancy need eat very carefully to ensure they and their growing foetuses get all the nutrition they need. Another by the World Health Organisation and the UN, showed that while plant-based diets are fine in the west, where supermarkets provide an endless bounty of everything we need, in the poor, rural developing world, plant-only diets just result in malnutrition.
But plant-based diets aren’t the only way of eating that could save the planet and keep us healthy in the absence of meat and fish. ‘Future foods’ like insects and arthropods hold real potential to fill the gap.
Insects: cheap, nutritious, convenient and delicious
Strictly speaking we’re talking about arthropods, not insects. ‘Arthropoda’ is the group of animals that includes insects, along with spiders, crustaceans and scorpions. If you’ve ever travelled through Cambodia or Vietnam, you might have seen tarantula legs being sold at the roadside.
Clearly insects aren’t vegan. But they can be farmed and produced with far less resources than meat, for the same nutritional benefits. For instance, grasshoppers are a protein-rich and sustainable snack, playing an important role in improving nutrition, food security and employment in east Africa. Leonard Alfonce, a researcher in entomology at Sokoine University of Tanzania, told the BBC that the insects should be cultivated as a sustainable food source throughout the year.
In the Netherlands, industry and government are trying to promote ‘entomophagy’ (eating insects). Researchers are trying to find out how to customise insects for Western tastes, and you can see some insects like locusts or mealworms on sale at retail markets in cities throughout the country.
Insects have been processed into powder or meal to minimise the ‘yuck factor’ and make them tastier, and scientists have been investigating the functional properties of insect proteins, including how they might help food products to gel, foam, emulsify and dissolve, so manufacturers can know how to use edible insects as a food ingredient. Insect-based flour, burgers, fitness bars and milk are already easily available in the UK, US and Europe.
Sugar’s sweet role as a functional ingredient in future foods
Much like the role it plays in plant-based alternative foods, sugar looks set to play a powerful part in creating texture and mouthfeel for future foods. Insect flour, now available on Amazon, can be used like regular flour to bake cakes, biscuits and other snacks, and sugar does the same jobs in food products baked with insect flour as it does with regular baked goods.
It may not be your automatic first choice for breakfast, but insect granola is slowly becoming more popular. While some feature ground-down insect ‘dust’ to add extra protein without giving us big bugs to crunch on, others do use crickets or dried mealworms in the same way they use oats or dried fruit: whole and in all their glory.
Manufacturers use sugars as a bulking and binding agent for these products in the same way they do with regular old-fashioned non-bug-based granolas. Binding agents are ingredients added to products that form its materials into a whole and provide structural stability to the final product.
This could include combining ingredients, so they don’t separate—in the case of muesli bars, for instance—or improving texture by thickening. Sugar has a big effect on how mixed ingredients react with one another, so it’s an important natural binding agent for manufacturers.
Sugar helping mealworms taste meatier
Interestingly, sugar has even been found to lend a meaty taste to mealworms. Researchers at Wonkwang University found that while steamed mealworms developed sweetcorn-like aromas, roasted and deep-fried varieties smelt more like shrimps.
To make the mealworms taste meatier, the researchers heated them with sugar, triggering the Maillard reaction: a reaction between amino acids and reducing sugars that gives browned food a distinctive flavour. The study team now plans to find out how to isolate the meaty flavour that sugar and mealworms produce, to use in other products.
The flavours of bugs themselves hold huge potential for food manufacturers. According to technogym.com, crickets taste like a kind of almond chicken with a ‘sweet scent of vanilla and chocolate notes’, while ants are like peanuts and other bugs smell like apples. Roberto Cavasin—a chef also known as ‘Masterbug’— has a cookbook of Mediterranean style insect recipes, including cannoli filled with strawberry mousse and ants, locusts’ ice cream and biscuits and muffins with cricket flour.
Right now, the future of food probably seems a little alien to many of us. While leaders in the food and beverage industry do a great job of staying ahead of trends and giving consumers what they want, they are also aware that traditional tastes and textures never get old. That’s why sugar stands the test of time: it brings not only sweetness, but irreplaceable mouthfeel and other functional properties that have the power to make so many food products better.
A board member and co-leader of the business, Ben is responsible for our marketing strategy and its execution by the agency team he leads and is the guardian of our corporate brand vision. He also manages key customers and distributors.
In 2005, he took on the role of globally sourcing our ‘speciality sugars’. With his background in laboratory product testing and following three decades of supplier visits, his expertise means we get high quality, consistent and reliable raw materials from ethical sources.