16 December 2020

Kids, insects and food: Mealworms beat grasshoppers

Future Food

Insects are a sustainable, climate-friendly food source. But what will it take for us to begin eating them? 188 Danish 11- and 12-year-old children have rolled and eaten their own mealworm and grasshopper fortified oatmeal balls as part of a University of Copenhagen research project. The project aims to explore what it will take to shift our eating habits in a more climate friendly direction. The experiment demonstrates that some insects have a greater yuck factor than others — and that mealworms might be our best bet for an insect-protein rich dietary future.

Børn laver havregynskugler med insekter
Foto: Charikleia Karagiannaki

188 Danish 5th and 6th grade students recently made havregrynskugler — golf ball-sized oatmeal balls — using either roasted mealworms or grasshoppers. Prior to being rolled into balls of oatmeal, peanut butter and butter, the mealworms needed to be crushed.

Grasshoppers, on the other hand, needed to have their wings and legs peeled off before being chopped up and combined with these same ingredients. Before being called into action, the children listened to a lecture by University of Copenhagen researchers about the potential of using insects as a climate-friendly food of the future.

The researchers recorded the children's reactions, hypothesizing that having the young ones make their havregrynskugler would have a positive impact on their overall assessment.

“As it turned out, this had no significance for whether they liked the food or not. What was significant was whether the insects appeared to be gross or not — whether they had wings, eyes, etc., as was the case with grasshoppers. Ultimately, the mealworms were the critter of choice, as they most resembled and tasted like roasted sunflower seeds,” says Associate Professor Michael Bom Frøst of the Department of Food Science, who is behind the project.  He adds:

“We could also see that the children who were most courageous to try new foods, were the ones who liked insects most. This confirms what we know about adult attitudes towards insects.”

Foto: Charikleia Karagiannaki

We need to change our eating habits... Now!

Mealworms and grasshoppers are both EU-approved production insects. While insects are a sustainable and climate-friendly food source, the consumption of insects is a far cry from any Danish culinary tradition. Indeed, there is a way to go before bugs become a go-to dietary choice among Danes, as addressed by the researchers:

“Our eating habits must shift drastically if we hope to achieve a 70 percent reduction of our impact on the climate by 2030, as the government has promised. But we can’t get people to eat in a more climate-friendly manner if they don't like the food. This is why we're researching the barriers between consumers and climate-friendly consumption — as is the case with swapping out meat for insects, for example," says Michael Bom Frøst.

The research project with the children is part of a larger initiative at the University of Copenhagen’s Department of Food Science which is striving to generate more knowledge about what it will take for Danes to adopt new, more climate-friendly foods.

"We’re committed to developing the foods of tomorrow, foods that are both climate-friendly and tasty. That’s why we work so much with sensory perceptions, to see what might make it easier for people to adopt new foods and ingredients. Among other things, the experiment with the children demonstrated that it takes more than being involved in the preparation of a new food,” concludes Michael Bom Frøst.

The research results are now published in the scientific journal Food Quality and Preference. The research is funded by Innovation Fund Denmark, through the InValuable project, and by Nordeafonden, through Taste for Life.