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How Four Ant Species Differ in Taste

Ants on a stick.
Credit: Prabir Kashyap / Unsplash.
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Insects are typically unwelcome visitors to a picnic, but they could be a flavorful, nutritious and sustainable addition to the menu. Eating insects is common in some parts of the world, and some species are even considered delicacies. Ants are one example, sometimes roasted whole for a snack or ground and used to add flavor and texture to dishes. Researchers now report the unique aroma profiles of four species of edible ants, which taste markedly different from one another.

The researchers will present their results today at the spring meeting of the American Chemical Society (ACS). ACS Spring 2024 is a hybrid meeting being held virtually and in person March 17-21; it features nearly 12,000 presentations on a range of science topics.

“I'm interested in ants because I once led a summer field study in Oaxaca, Mexico,” says Changqi Liu, an associate professor of food science. “You can easily find different edible insects in the market there, just like other food ingredients.”

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There have been few prior studies on the flavors of edible insects. But understanding flavor profiles could help the food industry formulate products with these readily available species. “If there are desirable flavors, scientists can investigate ways to promote their formation, and if there are undesirable flavors, they can find ways to eliminate or mask these odors,” says Liu.

Edible insects can be delicious alternatives to animal proteins, but people with food allergies should be cautious. Tropomyosin, a muscle protein, is a common allergen responsible for crustacean and shellfish allergies and is highly conserved across many invertebrate species. So, people with a sensitivity to crustacean shellfish may experience similar reactions to insects. Also, while edible insect production produces fewer greenhouse gas emissions than traditional animal farming, prices are high because large-scale farming of insects is still new. And consumer acceptance in some countries is a challenge for the food industry.

Nevertheless, Liu believes insects could be a great addition to the menu. “They can have very diverse and interesting flavor profiles. And that really increases the culinary possibilities of using these insects to create delicious food,” he says. Telling people about the edible insects’ nutritional and environmental benefits promotes people’s willingness to consume them, he adds. “But I don't want people to feel that they are making a sacrifice by eating these insects. I want to show that they can actually taste very good, while being nutritious and good for the environment.”

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