Working in a scientific field requires you to keep an open mind. Occasionally, however, a job lands on your plate that requires you to practice the open-mindedness of Carl Sagan. That’s the attitude we embraced when asked recently — by multiple clients — to analyze cricket flour.
Cricket flour is exactly what it sounds like — flour made from crickets. Before you cringe and click away from this page, hear us out.
Cricket flour, which contains proteins, polysaccharides (largely chitin), and fat, is biologically and ecologically a darned good idea. It’s a naturally high-protein, low-fat, gluten-free alternative for those who can’t or don’t wish to consume products made from wheat flour, or for those who want an extra punch of protein in their diet. It’s also made from an endlessly and easily renewable resource.
While the average American may be squeamish about consuming insects in any form, much of the world is just fine with entomophagy. In Africa and Asia, insects — including grasshoppers and caterpillars — are important sources of protein for many people. For example, people in the Central African Republic eat about 96 different species of insects, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). Worldwide, there are about 1,000 species of edible insects, the FAO estimates.
While we may not usually eat bugs in the U.S., we definitely make use of them in other ways. Chitin — the substance that makes up the tough exterior shell of critters like crickets — has been used in winemaking, water filtration, fertilizers and a variety of medical applications, including bandages that encourage blood clotting, tablet and medicine-making, and medical device implants.
Not only is chitin a good source of nutrition (thanks to chitinase enzymes), it can also be modified by converting it to chitosan. The method used to convert chitin to chitosan is deacetylation. Additives can be introduced to “tailor” how chitosan functions in real-world applications. Chitosan is used in products ranging from plastic wrap to wound care.
To analyze chitosan, we utilize nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy (NMR). The test allows us to measure the degree of deacetylation in a chitosan sample, which speaks to how the polymer will perform in applications and how soluble it might be.
Cricket flour has gained a lot of attention in the past few years, and a cricket-based energy bar was even featured on an episode of Shark Tank. We’d like to think we’ve avoided the knee-jerk response exhibited by some of the Shark Tank investors at the idea of eating anything made from an insect. Still, no one in our office has yet volunteered to test out any of the yummy-looking cricket flour recipes we found online while researching this blog!