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DIT researchers explore ways to make food from insects

Posted: 8 March, 2017

Researchers at the Food and Health Research Centre at DIT are exploring ways to use protein from insects as an ingredient in food products and cooking.

Insect Story - Lead

“Insects have a high protein content. They’re usually consumed roasted or fried in developed countries, but to make them more appealing we are using flour and protein extracts,” says Anna Rettore, a PhD student on the project.

The brainchild of Principal Investigators Dr Rena Barry-Ryan and Dr Roisin Burke, both lecturers in Food Science at DIT, the research project is responding to the global need to find new ways of producing food and to increase the supply of protein from sustainable sources.

By 2050, it is estimated that the world’s population will have increased to about 9 billion. Current food production will need to almost double to accommodate that growth. Land is scarce and expanding the area devoted to farming is rarely a viable or sustainable option.

In some regions of the world, edible insects have long been a part of human diets and interest has recently been growing around using insects as food in the Western World. Some top restaurants are exploring this option, for example DOM in Sao Paulo, Brazil serves guests a single freezer-cold Amazonian ant on a cube of pineapple. In Ireland, a pop-up ‘pest’ themed restaurant called ‘Pestaurant’ was set up at the National Ploughing Championships in Stradbally, Co Laois.

Anna’s passion for insects stretches back to her undergraduate degree in Environmental Science, where she focused on the biodiversity of insects. She went on to work in the Esapolis Museum in Italy, an entomological museum devoted to living insects where she first encountered the idea of using the creatures as food. She was hooked. When she saw an ad for a PhD position at DIT in the area, she jumped at the chance.

Insect Story - Image 2

“At the moment, I’m working on analysing the nutritional profile of two types of insects, crickets and silkworms to not only figure out how much protein, fat and carbohydrates they contain, but also to determine whether the amino acid profile of the protein is complete, to understand the biological value of the protein, whether it is digestable for humans.”

Anna chose to begin her research on crickets and silkworms because they are the most commonly eaten forms of insects in Western Europe, and she feels it is easier for people to mentally overcome eating them than say a cockroach.

She’s also working on perfecting the protocol and techniques for extracting protein from insects in an optimal way, and looking at how the protein extract and flour behave physically in the food matrix: whether they absorb water, create a foam, solubalise. These functional properties are very important when you cook with the ingredient.

Insect Story - Image 3

Kim Millar (PhD student), Dr Rena Barry-Ryan and Dr Roisin Burke with Minister for Education and Skills, Richard Bruton TD at the launch of the Greenway Hub at DIT

The research team plans to move into product development in the future. Possible avenues include using the insect products in baking, smoothies, snacks, fitness foods, protein products for the elderly.

“There is a lot of interest and a real need to find alternative proteins,” explains Anna. “The use of meat is very taxing on the resources of the planet. The food industry is a big factor in carbon emissions and especially the production of proteins, especially farming. If you compare with meat, insects are much more sustainable because they don’t need as much land space to be farmed, they use a much smaller amount of water. You can feed insects with waste. And you can farm insects in a controlled environment. They like to live together in closed spaces. They’ve been used for years in developing countries as a form of protein. It’s a matter of finding a convenient and efficient way of doing that here too and finding ways to make them appealing, delicious and safe.”