This might be a not-so-happy meal.
Creepy crawlies could be the key to solving world hunger — by eating them as food.
Just like their name suggests, the slimy creatures can be turned into grub. South Korean scientists have cooked mealworms, or beetle larvae, along with sugar to create “meat” — and they claim it tastes authentic.
“Recently, eating insects has become of interest because of the increasing cost of animal protein, as well as the associated environmental issues,” said Dr. Hee Cho, the project leader from Wonkwang University, in a press release.
Because the global population is approximated to reach 9.7 billion by 2050 — a large jump from our current nearly 8 billion population — meat alternatives are highly sought after due to their effect on the environment.
Climate change is partially fueled by cow emissions — due to the methane they produce — hence the need for beef substitutes.
For those who aren’t willing to part with their burgers, the scientists might have found the solution with the mealworms: grinding them up and seasoning them to taste just like the real thing.
In fact, the critters are a great source of nutrients the body needs, similar to that of meat, according to researchers, and have been shown to reduce cholesterol and inflammation while improving heart rhythms, according to researchers.
“Insects are a nutritious and healthy food source with high amounts of fatty acids, vitamins, minerals, fiber and high-quality protein — which is like that of meat,” Cho said. “Mealworm contains beneficial essential amino acids and is high in unsaturated fatty acids.”
But the squeamish might not voluntarily chow down on slimy worms. In many places, insects are not considered delicacies, unlike in other countries, but Dr. Cho is attempting to remedy the stigma.
“Mealworm is one of the most widely used edible insects in the world. However, edible insects are not universally accepted in our food cultures due to their repellant appearance and unique flavor characteristics,” added Cho, whose solution is to grind the worms into a seasoning that can be added to various food products.
Through their research, Cho’s team studied mealworms throughout their entire lifecycle, looking at how the compounds present differed in each stage. They found “volatile hydrocarbons” that evaporated and resulted in strong scents.
Raw larvae smelled of wet soil, shrimp and sweet corn but changed, depending on the method of cooking. Steamed mealworms emitted aromas of sweet corn, while roasted or deep-fried larvae were more oily.
In fact, the worms had more similarities to food than just smells — chemicals formed that researchers said were similar to those found in meat or seafood. When mixed with sugar, they brewed a “meat-like” concoction.
After trial and error with various amounts of mealworm and sugar, a testing group was given samples to declare a winner that had the most “meat-like” scent.
“As a result of this study, 10 of the reaction flavors were optimized based on consumer preferences,” said co-author and graduate student Hyeyoung Park, who presented the findings at the American Chemical Society in Chicago.
The results, which marked the first time beetle larvae had been repurposed as faux beef, will hopefully be used to influence the mass production of worm meat, according to researchers.
Foodies in the EU have included mealworms on their menus for a while now following research that declared the critters safe to consume. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization even referred to the insects as “a healthy and highly nutritious food source with a high content of fat, protein, vitamins, fibers and minerals.”
But that’s not all — worms have even been shown to have medical benefits as well.
Earlier this year, scientists discovered worms could even discover lung cancer. The roundworms were attracted to or deterred from certain scents, like that of cancerous tissue.