Do you want ants with that?


Tuesday, 19 March, 2024

Do you want ants with that?

Researchers at the American Chemical Society are considering the concept of eating four species of edible ants with a unique set of taste profiles to be a flavourful, nutritious and sustainable addition to our western menu. Eating insects is common in non-western parts of the world, with some species even considered delicacies.

There have been few prior studies on the flavours of edible insects. Understanding flavour profiles could help the food industry formulate products with these readily available species. “If there are desirable flavours, scientists can investigate ways to promote their formation, and if there are undesirable flavours, they can find ways to eliminate or mask these odours,” said Changqi Liu, an associate professor of food science.

To better understand which compounds contribute to the flavours of edible ants, Liu and his team at San Diego State University analysed the odour profiles of four species: the chicatana ant, common black ant, spiny ant and weaver ant.

The researchers identified the volatile compounds present in samples from each species, using gas chromatography-mass spectrometry, and matched them to odours sensed using an olfactometer. They were puzzled by some volatiles for which they were unable to sense an odour; the team later figured out those chemicals were ant pheromones. Even at high concentrations, humans aren’t able to smell the alkanes that ants use as chemical messengers. But they were able to identify other noticeable odours that contribute to the flavour of these ant species.

The team found that common black ants have an acidic and vinegary smell, primarily because of their high content of formic acid, which is a compound the ants secrete from venom glands. The researchers also detected the presence of large alkanes the ants use as alarm pheromones.

Unlike common black ants, the chicatana ants tested did not contain formic acid, and their predominant smell was nutty, woody and fatty. The researchers attributed fatty, grassy odours to the presence of aldehydes. They say the nutty, roasted smell comes from pyrazines, compounds also produced when meats and bread are cooked. Chicatana ants use a type of pyrazine as a trail pheromone.

Weaver ants were characterised as having a nutty, sweet and caramel-like aroma caused by the presence of various pyrazines and pyrroles, but the researchers also detected hay and urine-like off-flavours likely due to high concentrations of amines.

Next, Liu and his team hope to further investigate the flavour profiles of more ant species and developmental stages like ant eggs.

To learn more about this presentation, ‘Exploring flavors of edible ants: A path to sustainable gastronomy and consumer acceptance’, visit the ACS Spring 2024 program.

Image credit: iStock.com/RHJ

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