The chemistry behind the many flavours of edible ants

As the global demand for protein increases insects, ants – with their high nutritional value and low environmental impact – are being seen as an increasingly sustainable alternative to animal proteins.

Edible insects are already considered delicacies in some countries, but researchers believe understanding their flavour profiles is essential for the food industry to create appealing insect-based products that can overcome psychological barriers in other places.

“They can have very diverse and interesting flavour profiles. And that really increases the culinary possibilities of using these insects to create delicious food,” says Changqi Liu, an associate professor of food science at San Diego State University in the US.

“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.”

Liu and his team have presented the results of their research on the unique aroma profiles of 4 species of edible ants at the spring meeting of the American Chemical Society held from 17-21 March.

To better understand the compounds that contribute to the flavours of edible ants, they analysed the odour profiles of four species: the chicatana ant, common black ant, spiny ant, and weaver ant.

Photograph of a plate of cooked prawns garnished with a red flower and tiny black ants
The common black ant has a sour flavor that can be used in place of lemon juice. Credit: Changqi Liu

Understanding their flavour profiles could help the food industry formulate products using these 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,” says Liu.

The researchers found that black ants have a pungent, acidic, and vinegary smell, primarily because of the high content of formic acid secreted from their venom glands.

Conversely, the chicatana ants’ predominant smell was nutty, woody, and fatty, which the researchers attribute to the presence of aldehydes and pyrazines.

Liu and his team hope to further investigate the flavour profiles of more ant species and developmental stages like ant eggs, which are considered a delicacy in some countries.

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