How would you feel about drizzling some grasshopper oil vinaigrette on your next salad? Or swapping out the veggie oil in your favorite muffin recipe for an oil made from flies? With their high doses of protein and omega-3 fatty acids and low impact on the environment to produce, insects may be the wave of the future when it comes to food choices.
The idea of eating insects may sound strange, but it's something that people have been doing around the world for generations. In certain parts of Asia, Africa and South America, insects such as crickets, caterpillars, woodworms, silk worms, bees and ants are regularly consumed both as a delicacy and a consistent source of nutrition and protein.
Insects are generally in abundant supply, and from an environmental standpoint, they're much easier on the planet to raise than cows, pigs and chickens. Several companies have realized the marketing potential of insect consumption and have begun producing protein powders made from bugs.
But it was Dr. Daylan Tzompa-Sosa, a food science researcher at the University of Wageningen in the Netherlands, who wondered about insect oils, which are discarded during the protein powder production. Could those oils also be put to good use?
What kind of bug makes a good insect oil?
For the past several years Tzompa-Sosa and her team have been testing the various oils produced by insects to determine their potential uses. Because they contain omega-3 fatty acids, insect oils could be a healthy alternative to other oils in baked goods, salad dressings and even ice cream.
Tzompa-Sosa is currently investigating a number of insect oils to determine which ones will have the most productive uses. To determine whether or not an insect will produce a "good" oil, she looks for those from which good quantities of oil can be easily extracted from the insect. She also evaluates the color, smell, and health components, and overall potential uses.
Some insect oils are more suitable for human consumption than others. Grasshoppers and soldier flies, for instance, generate oils with a fruity aroma, whereas the oil from cockroaches smells awful and is not suitable for food, but the fat itself might be used in skin tanning as an industrial lubricant. "At this point I do not have a clear answer of which insect is the 'winner' because we need to do more research on it," Tzompa-Sosa explained.
From a health perspective, Tzompa-Sosa found that insect oils have lower levels of saturated fat than animal fats but slightly higher levels of cholesterol than vegetable oils. She also found that insect oils contain high levels of omega-3s, fatty acids often found in fish that have been linked to some significant health benefits. However, it's worth noting that insect oils contain primarily short-chain omega-3s such oleic linoleic acid and linoleic acid while fish oils contain these acids as well as the even more beneficial longer-chain fatty acids, EPA and DHA.
So it's unlikely that oils from crickets or beetles will become the next sought-after superfoods, but they may offer a healthier and more environmentally friendly alternative to the oils currently in your cupboard.
"The day in which we find a muffin baked with an insect fat or a mayonnaise with an insect oil might not be so far in the future," said Tzompa-Sosa.