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Mealworms for dinner? Scientists create tofu from bugs (+video)

A team of graduate students created C-fu, a tofu-like food made from mealworm protein. Why should we give this some serious thought?

What’s for dinner? Soon, the answer may be  bugs.

A team of graduate students at Cornell University created a tofu substitute made from 100 percent mealworm meat. Called “C-fu”—since the original version was made from crickets—it apparently isn’t half bad.

“When we made it with crickets, it tasted awful,” Lee Cadesky, the team’s leader, told the Cornell Daily Sun. “We went to superworms for a while and they tasted even worse, and then we went to mealworms and they tasted okay.”

The team used protein from mealworms, crickets, superworms, and waxworms over the course of six months. In a process of extracting and restructuring proteins, Mr. Cadesky was able to work with insect proteins to turn them into a comfortingly familiar tofu-like texture.

“My thesis research has to do with cheesemaking and how milk proteins coagulate to form the gel network that makes cheese,” Cadesky said to the Cornell Daily Sun. “Similar principles apply to tofu and surimi, so I wanted to explore whether or not we could do the same things with insects.”

Last November, they held a taste session for students on campus. After learning that most people preferred the mealworm variety, they held another public tasting for curious students and faculty last week. The taste of mealworms was “not what they expected,” Cadesky said.

"It's pretty good," one tester said, reported Popular Science. "It tastes like a really firm tofu," offered another curious taste tester.

The team was selected as one of 10 finalists to compete at the global Thought for Food Challenge mid-February in Lisbon, Portugal. If they win, they will receive $10,000 in seed funding to help get the product to market.

Supplementing a diet with insects, called “entomophagy,” is a topic that is gaining increasing traction as the world’s population continues to grow. The argument in favor of such a diet is compelling: insects are high in protein, they require less space to harvest, and they are more environmentally friendly than protein sources like beef and chicken. For example, the team at Cornell believes that the space needed to harvest enough mealworms to feed 2 billion people would be roughly the size of Rhode Island.

C-fu consists of about 13 percent protein and 23 percent fat, with smaller amounts of iron. About 75 percent of the fats are unsaturated, making the mealworm-based food rich in omega-3 and omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids, according to Cadesky. With the same amount of protein per pound as an egg and even more than traditional tofu, the food source has untapped potential to seriously address food shortages.

Yet eating insects is a concept many Westerners find hard to swallow. While entomaphagy is widespread in many parts of the world — including parts of Africa, Mexico, Australia, South America, Asia, and the Netherlands—the most difficult challenge is changing the perception of insect-based diets from negative to positive.

“C-fu is not a just a single product. It’s a versatile food ingredient that can be reprocessed into hundreds of different and new foods,” Cadesky said. “We want to change the paradigm surrounding insect foods from a dystopian imperative to gastronomic adventure.”

Anthropoligist Krystal D'Costa addresses sociological concerns regarding the consumption of insects in an article on Scientific.com. She said that from a young age, we are taught in western cultures that insects are dangerous, dirty, and disgusting. We associate insects with ideas of “primitive or poverty” and find it easier to condemn their consumption rather than look at the fact that it is widely accepted in other areas of the world. She mentions the irony that we reject crickets, but will readily eat their arthropod relatives shrimp and lobster.

“In non-Western cultures insects are an important food source, providing proteins, fats, vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Where eating insects is a norm, people can tell the difference between good insects and bad insects and identify seasonal differences in arthropodal food choices,” Ms. D’Costa wrote on ScientificAmerica.com. “The challenge will be to get people to see insects differently. Food perceptions can change. Right now, somewhere, there is a person having sushi for the first time. The concept of ‘raw’ is no longer disgusting.”

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