Researcher envisions time when 'There's a fly in my soup' isn't a punchline
When she was growing up in Mexico City, Gabriela Calzada Luna's family would gather to eat dinner and laugh together. One of those dinners stands out: the first time she tried escamoles. After she watched her relatives eat them, she asked her mother to make her
a taco topped with the small, fried escamoles.
"I loved the deep, earthy flavor and crunchy texture," said Luna, a graduate student in Food Science.
What Luna didn't know until after she finished eating is that escamoles are pan-fried ant larvae. But she wasn't grossed out. On the contrary, she loved escamoles and was enthralled by the concept of edible insects. It's a fascination that has informed her career. She is now performing research in entomophagy, the practice of eating insects, in the Department of Food Science.
Luna aims to fully understand the behavior and culinary applications of cricket proteins, a new frontier as far as most food science research is concerned. However, she remains unfazed by the challenges of eating insects.
"I really like the creativity, and the ability to really go deep, and understand why things happen," she said.
Last fall, Luna showed some creativity by making a worthy complement to her mother's escamoles: cricket protein corn tortillas. Luna prepared them by isolating the cricket protein with various mild enzymes, then incorporated the protein into the corn masa. After pressing and cooking the tortillas, she tested them with various texture, consumer, and sensory studies.
"The end goal is to understand how this protein behaves . . . because it's such a novel item, we don't know the properties," she explained.
Once food scientists better understand how cricket protein behaves, they can begin to consider how to integrate it into food products as an innovative, yet nutritious, ingredient.
Of course, Luna said she knows people find the idea of eating insects revolting. But she also knows that Americans were once revolted by the idea of eating uncooked fish. Now, sushi has become so popular in the United States that you're likely to find it in your local grocery store. Finding escamoles at the local supermarket may be some way off, but Luna is hopeful and enthusiastic about the future.
Experts estimate there will be 9 billion people roaming the Earth come 2050. Luna is quick to point out that insects require much fewer inputs (land, feed, water, and so on) than other livestock, such as beef cattle. The only obstacle is creating food products that can substitute into existing markets. Still, Luna, as well as other aspiring "ento-preneurs," are up to the challenge.
Some of these startup products include protein bars, pastas, burger patties, and even beer! If these startups are successful, Luna is sure it won't take long for major brands to snap them up and add momentum to the entomophagy movement.
As for her own future, Luna said she is excited to expand her research beyond the humble cricket.
"There are literally hundreds of different species (of edible insects) that we haven't explored," she said "I want to continue to see how we convert them into our food system."
By Julia Schmidt Food Science, sophomore