Pea protein
Novel plant-based ingredients are meeting the rising interest in non-animal protein products across categories.

KANSAS CITY — Earlier this year a study published in the Journal of the International Union of Crystallography investigated the structure of milk protein crystals found inside baby Pacific beetle cockroaches and found it may serve as a potential protein supplement for humans. While the highly caloric “milk” — containing three times the energy of dairy milk and all essential amino acids — may not be ready now, or ever, for prime time commercialization, the use of new and non-animal protein sources in beverages, bars and snacks is beginning to make inroads with mainstream consumers.

A variety of issues from sustainability to clean label are expanding consumer notions of desirable protein sources. Chicago-based market research firm Mintel reports that preferences for less processed food sources and vegan-friendly proteins are decreasing demand for established protein alternatives. “The leading sources of protein used in snack bars, soy and whey, are deterring health-conscious consumers seeking cleaner, simpler foods,” said Jodie Minotto, senior global food trends analyst for Mintel.

The latest buzz

At Pangea, the plant-forward pop-up restaurant at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park, N.Y., guests can expect to find what’s trending. Most recently they were offered candied crickets mixed with popcorn as a “surprise” opening gambit.

“Just to be different this year, we offered it to customers as a starter to their dinner, to stimulate conversation,” chef/instructor Martin Matysik explained.

Cricket credentials

Having been consumed in other parts of the world for centuries, bugs have the potential to meet future protein demands for a growing population. Extensive analysis of insect species (including one 1997 study of 78 species from Oaxaca state, Mexico, alone) has been undertaken to determine the dietary energy of edible bugs. “Edible Insects: Future Prospects for Food and Feed Security,” a 2013 book released by the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) stressed that farming insects could have huge global potential, due to both the nutritional value as well as the minimal environmental impact.

“I think 10 to 20 years from now, we won’t have much choice as we’ll be facing a shortage of water and seafood for sure; most likely, we’ll eat meat or fish only once or twice a week,” Mr. Matysik said.

To prepare the bugs for the menu, CIA students remove dehydrated crickets from vacuum-sealed bags, dip them in corn syrup, bake them in a low temperature oven until the sugar dries and crystalizes, then sprinkle them with a mix of peppers.

Crickets, with their mild corn flavor, are also used in a teff flour blend at Pangea. Mr. Matysik finds the protein component makes the blend dense and “quite a nice product once you get over the ‘fear’ of eating it,” he said.

Teff and cricket flour blend
Crickets are also used in a teff flour blend at Pangea.

“The best way to introduce it to people is whole insects, like kettle corn crickets,” said Rachael Young, founder of and Field Notes Food Co., Austin. “Take medium-sized, not yet mature crickets — when they chirp they’re mature — and make them sweet and salty, or mix with garam masala, or prepare Jamaican jerk grasshoppers or grasshopper toffee. Just keep it crunchy!”

The herbalist, forager, conservation biologist and pharmacologist “knows crickets,” though she prefers grasshoppers, but cautioned insects taste like what they eat.

“Find local organic farmers who don’t have livestock near the fields (i.e., no manure present),” she said.

Raising crickets and other food-grade insects has typically been an enterprise geared to feed reptiles or for fishing. In the small town of Republic, Wash., for four straight years there was a bumper grasshopper crop that inspired Ms. Young’s friend, Sarah Wilson, to spearhead a movement to hold the city’s first Grasshopper Festival in 2015 and to form a cooperative to farm them.

Ms. Young also wild harvests cornu aspersum snails in Texas, which she calls “the gateway bug.” Also known as petit gris — or as the brown garden snail to gardeners who consider them pests — these are edible Mediterranean escargot snails and a viable source of future protein, she explained.