Do umami-flavoured insects need new categories for sweet success?

By Niamh Michail

- Last updated on GMT

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Insects have a meaty, umami flavour with herby flavour notes - so why are most manufacturers using them in sweet products? It may be time for a category re-think, says one researcher.

The global food market for insect-based products is growing more than 40% annually with an estimated value of more than €400 million a year by 2023. 

Europe has been relatively prolific with insect-based products and, thanks to a streamlined novel foods regulation as of January this year, it’s set to increase even more.

But according to Lars Henrik Heckmann, technology manager and head of insect production at the Danish Technological Institute (DTI), many of the products we’ve seen hitting the shelves, from confectionery to cereal bars, haven’t really been taking into account the flavour profile of insects.

Speaking at Protein Vision in Amsterdam last week, Heckmann said: “Insects have that umami taste we know from meat and therefore it’s probably a good idea to think of that when you place them in certain products – is it relevant to have a meaty taste in that product?”

Savoury food categories or products that can be eaten as part of a meal are a “natural​” fit, Heckmann said, and it would be interesting to see more of these on the shelves.

Manufacturers could also experiment with different species of insects as each has a different flavour, in the same way that beef differs from chicken.

However, there is still a lot to be done on the research and sensory analysis side, Heckmann added. There is no sensory flavour diagram for insects, for instance.

As for getting consumers to make the jump from tentatively trying insect flour hidden in protein bars to eating whole insects, Heckmann is optimistic.

“Some consumer surveys in Denmark have shown a doubling from the 20-ish percent a few years back to over 40% now. I’ve heard of consumer assessments in Finland with up to 70% willing to eat insects. So it’s definitely the right time but for most of these people [it’s] still in products where they are hidden and psychologically comfortable.”

The next 10 years – or even less – will see a change as people become more comfortable with the idea of eating insects, Heckmann predicts.

“We will also start cooking with insects – not just buying them in products but actually cooking with them.”

Heckmann is currently working on the inVALUABLE project (Insect Value Chain in a Circular Bioeconomy). Scheduled to run until next year and with a budget of €3.7m, it is looking at industrialising mealworm production and counts 11 partners from the entire value chain on board.

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