What's a scientist to do when she discovers insect oil is going to waste after a colleague has finished researching its proteins? Well, if your field is the study of milk fats, you just branch out a little. It's not that big a stretch from milk fat to insect fat, right?
Though her primary research is with milk fats, Daylan Tzompa-Sosa, a post-doc food scientist at the Wageningen University and Research Centre in the Netherlands, saw opportunity when she realized insect fats were just going to waste. She discovered an oil rich in Omega-3 fatty acids that can be sustainably produced, and may change the way people around the world — or at least in most Western countries — eat everything from salad dressing to French fries.
"One of the main concerns in foods is exactly how to introduce the insects into the diets of Western culture," Tzompa-Sosa says. "There are some cultures where that is no problem – Asian cultures, Latin American cultures. They have no problem looking at a worm or a cricket or some strange things on their plates. But the Western culture does."
A separate 2015 Dutch study shows that Westerners will eat insects for a couple of reasons, including curiosity, in which case they'll generally only try them once, Tzompa-Sosa says. Environmental concerns can be another motivating factor to munch on some bugs.
"People who are more concerned about sustainability," she says, "they are [more likely] to add it to their diet, as long as it's not the entire form. They would be willing to do that because they are concerned about the environment, but they [want insects] in ways they do not recognize."
As scientists look for ways to improve food sustainability, particularly amid concerns about overfishing, insects are increasingly on their plates. (The practice of consuming insects is called entomophagy.) This real-world research makes Tzompa-Sosa believe she's hit on one answer with insect oil, which, like any other kind of oil, can be hidden in all kinds of culinary applications.
"What we saw is that [the insect oil looked] more like a vegetable oil," she says. "It's yellowish, so it's [like a] type of oil that we use at home, like canola oil."
This canola-esque product was produced from a number of different species of insects, including yellow meal worms, lesser meal worms, giant meal worms, crickets, silk worms, black soldier fly larvae and cockroaches. And all but the cockroaches (it would have to be cockroaches, wouldn't it?) produced an appetizing oil rich in Omega-3 fatty acids and low in saturated fats, she said.
"So we think it's possible to be used [in] Western society. It's just oil. Most of them are good," she says. "Except one cockroach oil. [It] has a very bad smell. From the beginning in the processing, it's a very nasty smell. Then the oil also has a bad smell."
Just how bad was it? It smells rancid, or like dead bodies, says Tzompa-Sosa.
Given the already bad reputation of cockroaches, cockroach oil would probably be a hard sell anyway. But not so, perhaps, the other oils.
Insect proteins are already big business around the world, used in feed for fish, reptiles, cats and even humans. Companies are also producing and marketing insect protein powders for people. Yep, just like those other protein powders people take to increase strength and muscle. If insect oil takes off, it would be produced from what is now waste from both animal feed and protein powders, so harvesting the oil would be sustainable.
As the world population races to the 8 billion mark and food security becomes a greater issue, new and nutritious products that can be sustainably produced while tasting — and smelling — good, like insect oil, may be one way to help feed all those hungry mouths.