Are 3D printed insect snacks the taste of the future?

By Annie-Rose Harrison-Dunn

- Last updated on GMT

Four crickets provide as much calcium as a glass of milk and dung beetles contain more iron than beef, says the project's leader. Photo credit: Just Walk Away Renee
Four crickets provide as much calcium as a glass of milk and dung beetles contain more iron than beef, says the project's leader. Photo credit: Just Walk Away Renee

Related tags Nutrition

Hurdles in food safety, taste and consumer acceptance await on the London South Bank University’s quest to join two big food innovations: 3D printing and insect-based ingredients.

The team of food scientists and product designers hope to bring the two together in their snack and breads project, Insects au Gratin, but before that can happen they must overcome challenges in how to de-fat the ingredient safely. They hope the 3D printing aspect of the project will help tackle certain aesthetics of eating insects which may put some consumers off.

Last summer the Food and Agriculture Organisation published a report​ outlining the potential benefits of using insects as a mainstream food source to health, the environment and global food security.

Printable insect flour

Ken Spears, one of the food technologists involved in the project, told they are working on the development of an insect flour using mealworms which could then be incorporated into cereal bars, baked snacks, cake toppings and later bread.

The team is looking at the use of this flour in various carriers like fondant paste to make intricate shapes using 3D printers adapted to extrude food.

“There are a number of technical challenges in printing insect flour. We have to mix it with a fondant or 'carrier' in order to give it some structure. The large particle sizes of the insect flour and the high fat content causes 'caking' and blocking of the injector heads,”​ Spears said.

Food safety and taste challenges

In order to prevent this, the food technologists must develop ways to de-fat the insect ingredient. However this is currently posing food safety issues.

The insect material has a savory meaty taste and quickly becomes rancid because of high fat content. We are interested in de-fatting the material but current techniques would make it unsafe to eat. We can mask the taste in products by using a range of spices and flavorings. Current projects are likely to focus on masking the taste in conventional products,”​ Spears said.

“We are currently using insects reared for feeding wildlife so there are a number of food safety issues which reduces our ability to provide edible products,”​ he said.

Functional opportunity

The insect flour – which Spears says actually produces something more like ground dried meat than cereal flour’s elastic dough – can have 50% protein when dried. He says this could make it an attractive supplement.

Susana Soares, senior lecturer at the university and leader of the project, told us insect flour could have potential in high energy and protein sports nutrition snacks. However she said it could also have broader appeal as a highly nutritional ingredient since insects are high in calcium, iron and magnesium with four crickets providing as much calcium as a glass of milk and dung beetles, by weight, containing more iron than beef.

Spears said prices for insects are not much cheaper than meat, but insects can be produced more cheaply in farmed systems.

Increasing appeal

Spears said that while there is no particular advantage in using insect material for 3D printing, it could prove useful in enhancing the appeal of such an ingredient for otherwise resistant consumers.

Soares said: “3D food printing enables us to explore the aesthetics of food and in this instance insects, radical uses of 3D printing technology may enable us to overcome the traditional aesthetic issues of ‘eating insects’ and challenge people’s perceptions of eating insects.”

“The use of insect protein as a ‘printable’ material opens up a range of new applications and questions about sustainability, raw materials, nutrition, and food acceptance,”​ she added.

Speares added: “I’m sure there would be some interest from industry if you could demonstrate a sustainable and high quality food ingredient. In the medium term this is likely to be more of interest to animal feed manufacturers rather than for consumers.”

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Regarding fat

Posted by Sam,

I think the fat content could actually be a selling point to a lot of consumers.

People are interested in energy. That is what calories are. High fat content means high energy and many active, fit people are becoming interested in products that provide this.

I am thinking mostly of weightlifters and backpackers, but any intense physical activity can benefit from high protein high fat snacking.

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Barriers to consumer uptake

Posted by Chris Schmidt,

In addition to the "gross factor", I imagine one of the biggest barriers insect protein products will have is their high fat content. If producers like Spears are able to safely de-fat the protein, that could certainly help, but for now the products macronutrient profiles don't seem very consumer friendly. I remember looking at the Exo protein bar Kickstarter and thinking, "Oh, this is cool." Until I saw one snack bar has 290 calories and 31% of my daily fat intake. I just don't know that people will appeal to a ton of consumers.

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