ORONO — One August night at the University of Maine, food science innovation coordinator Rob Dumas prepared black bean sliders with a twist: patties with dried whole mealworms and protein powder made from crickets. The insects added an earthy, mushroom-like flavor to the burgers, which also had tomato, avocado, slaw and chipotle aioli.

Dumas served his sliders to Sara Gross, executive director of the Maine Tasting Center; Shawn Duffy, co-founder of the insect rearing startup Invertebration; and Bill Broadbent, president of value-added insect product maker Entosense.

Everyone had an insect-infused dish to offer that night in the Matthew Highlands Food Pilot Plant in Hitchner Hall. Gross prepared corn salad cups with chicatana ant mayonnaise. Duffy made metamorphic mealworm tacos. Broadbent’s sister, Susan, who also is vice president of Entosense, baked cornmeal muffins topped with black ant “poppy seeds.” 

“It’s been incredibly fun, especially being in a room full of people who are equally enthusiastic about this work,” Gross says. “My work at Maine Tasting Center is focused around supporting and promoting Maine food industries; working with the edible insect industry has been so rewarding because of the passion and excitement these producers bring to it.  

Dumas and his associates aren’t just eating bugs for fun — they are working to incorporate insects into the U.S. diet. The team will showcase their dishes at a four-course Sustainable Supper with Edible Insects at 5:30 p.m. Oct. 28 at the Maine Tasting Center, 506 Old Bath Road, Wiscasset. The event will also feature edible insect snacks, cocktails and mocktails. Register for it online

The supper is part of the team’s larger effort to find more ways U.S. consumers can enjoy edible insects, and the nutritional and sustainability benefits they offer. The group also hopes to inspire more entrepreneurs to sell insects and value-added products made from them, encourage more chefs to use them and make Maine a leader in the edible insect industry. 

“I am regularly thinking about how people should eat, how people do eat, and the ramifications of our food choices on the environment and socioeconomic systems,” Dumas says. “I think people need to expand the variety of proteins that they eat.”  

In U.S. markets, insects are almost exclusively found in novelty candies and snacks, but they are featured more broadly in cuisine in other parts of the world. 

Dumas says some consumers can have an apprehensive view when it comes to eating insects, particularly because of how they look and their crunchy texture. To overcome these barriers, he and his colleagues are creating dishes that incorporate not just whole insects, but also as small pieces or powder. Finding new ways to present these creatures also allows consumers to enjoy their diverse flavors, like the earthy taste of mealworms and crickets and the citrus tang of ants. 

Edible insect products can offer similar amounts of nutrients as those with traditional meats. Dumas says. For example, a burger patty with cricket powder provides the same level of protein and fiber as one with beef, and has less saturated fat.

Insects require less space and produce less waste than other livestock. They can be housed in silos, thus requiring less acreage than cows, pigs and chickens. Farmers can also feed them agricultural waste and byproducts. 

Water usage for insect rearing and processing is less than that for hydrating and manufacturing products from other livestock. Various goods can also be produced with the entire insect, Broadbent says. 

“I think sustainability is really essential to the conversation of getting people past the yuck factor of bugs and giving them a try,” Dumas says. “There’s also something to be said about the emotional connection. I think some people have a hard time seeing an animal and imagining that animal becoming their food, and I don’t know that people have that same sympathy perhaps for a cricket or a mealworm. So I think there might be some folks who lean toward vegan and vegetarian diets for ethical or emotional reasons who might be willing to eat an insect.”    

Maine is already home to several companies involved in commercial insect production and goods manufacturing, including Entosense and Invertebration. With ample farmland and a long history in agriculture, Dumas and his colleagues believe the industry can grow here. Gross says Maine farmers can raise and sell insects for value-added good production as a side venture. Startup costs are low compared to other commercial food ventures, Broadent says. 

To bolster the edible insect industry in Maine, and position it as a national leader, Gross hopes to assist in forming a trade group and include an exhibit about Maine’s edible insect producers in the Discovery Center at Maine Tasting Center. Broadent hopes to secure a grant to bring insect-based cuisine in schools, and work with chefs to develop more dishes. 

“Chefs are the answer. If it tastes good, people will eat it,” he says. 

Dumas says he will work with companies on edible insect product research and development, and may recruit students to help him. The UMaine Food Science Club will be invited to work the Sustainable Supper with Edible Insects dinner in October. 

As they develop their business and build the infrastructure for it, Duffy and his partner for Invertebration, Ethan Nurick, also are creating the first-of-its-kind best practices for insect rearing and food production. They also hope to attend regional and national trade shows, and build a food truck or taco stand at their farm. 

“We want to be bold. To be a leader in the industry, we have to get out there and do the work,” Duffy says. “I just love the idea of opening people’s minds to this potential in North American cuisine.”