Insects as food

Portraitbild_Psarianos

They contain high-quality proteins, a high proportion of unsaturated fatty acids, vitamins and minerals: insects are a good source of nutrients. Read how Marios Psarianos, a doctoral student from Greece, is conducting research in Potsdam so that insects can become a source of food in future.

The subjects of the research conducted by Marios Psarianos are roughly two centimetres long, have a spherical head and powerful biting apparatus – crickets. The 25-year-old chemical engineer keeps hundreds of these tiny insectsin a kind of incubator at the laboratory of the Leibniz Institute for Agricultural Engineering and Bioeconomy (ATB) in Potsdam.

Marios Psarianos wants to discover which environmental factors influence the growth of the crickets. He varies the food they are given, how much water they receive, and ambient light, temperature and humidity levels in an attempt to find out which of these affect the natural lifespan of the crickets, which is normally two to three months, and how.

What are the key factors when cultivating crickets?

Sometimes it is enough if just one of these factors is not optimal for the lifespan of the insects to be reduced significantly: “For example, if the crickets are not given enough food, we quickly face the problem of cannibalism”, says Psarianos, who also closely monitors the aspects of quality and safety. “My goal is to determine exactly what the ideal conditions are for cultivating crickets”, he explains. This is the first part of the PhD that the young man from Greece is doing at the ATB; to this end he is involved in Food4Future, a project funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research. The project is looking at the entire value chain – it’s not only a question of biology, but also of bioeconomy.

Given that Marios Psarianos only began his doctoral thesis around a year ago, he has already made considerable progress. He spent his childhood in Athens, where he did his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in chemical engineering. Soon after graduating he applied  for a PhD in Germany at the ATB because he finds the subject of insects “fascinating and of great future potential”. He has always been interested in Germany because of its culture and diverse research landscape.

Moving to Germany during the corona pandemic

He was accepted for the PhD after only a few weeks. Finally, in November 2019, he moved to Potsdam. A new country, a new language – and all just months before the corona pandemic broke out with its lockdowns and contact restrictions.

He initially had enough time to explore Potsdam and its museums, but the pandemic soon made the rest of Germany largely inaccessible. And the contact restrictions also made it more difficult for him to settle properly into everyday life. Marios Psarianos is making the best of things, however. Once he had acquired a basic command of German, he began to read German novels by authors such as Daniel Kehlmann and Frank Schätzing. He watches the series Babylon Berlin online. “And when I have a free moment during the day, while waiting at the bus stop for instance, I try to think in German”, he explains.

Protein powder made from insects

Portrait_Marios Psarianos

Has he now settled in? “Yes, pretty much”, says Psarianos, adding that he is comfortable with the idea of spending at least the next few years in Germany. His main objective during this time is to learn more about how insects can provide humans with a valuable source of nutrients.

That is the second part of his PhD: which nutrients can crickets provide and how they can constitute a source of food for humans. “Obviously, many people, especially in Europe and the USA, cannot imagine eating insects. And it makes no difference that fried insects can actually taste really good”, says Psarianos with a smile. “Most people simply think they look disgusting, and as we know the first bite is with the eye. However, there is no need to eat insects whole.“ It is more about extracting the nutrients from the insects and converting them into a different, readily consumable form – and that is the objective of his doctoral thesis. Many protein powders are already produced from insects today.

Crickets are a climate-friendly food source

“I will test out different processes and decide how best to extract proteins and other nutrients from the crickets in a hygienic and eco-friendly manner”, explains Psarianos. Crickets also score extremely well in terms of their environmental impact: “They need little water and food given how much they later supply, and they require comparatively little space. This makes them a climate-friendly food source.”

If all goes well, he will already be able to start his research into the nutrients supplied by crickets this year once he has completed his research into their cultivation. “I believe that my research is not only of academic interest but may also prove to have considerable practical relevance”, says Psarianos. After all, he is convinced that crickets and other insects will one day become a source of food. And may thus even play a major role in shaping our future diets.

Author: Christian Heinrich