Carleton University PhD candidate Matt Muzzatti is on a mission to fatten up crickets.
The 27-year-old wants to help the cricket protein industry grow bigger bugs for less money, and ultimately attract more hungry consumers looking to broaden their menu.
Edible cricket products are still relatively pricey, which can deter even adventurous eaters from adding them to their diet. The aim is to drive down the cost of production for cricket producers, in turn lowering the cost of their products.
I strongly believe this is a potential solution for the future. - Matt Muzzatti
To do that, Muzzatti has become something of a cricket dietitian, figuring out the best nutrition to feed the insects for optimum results. He spent the past year designing meal plans for Gryllodes sigillatus, or banded crickets, the species that ends up in protein bars and breakfast smoothies made with their powder.
"By the year 2050, experts estimate that our world population will reach around 10 billion people. Our current agricultural model isn't really positioned to feed this many people adequately. Insects as food and animal feed is one potential solution to solving this food crisis," said Muzzatti.
But COVID-19 restrictions shut down his cricket catering lab at Carleton, so Muzzatti was obliged to move his research in-house. As in, into his own home.
First, he needed a cricket incubator — "sort of like a minifridge that lets me control temperature and humidity" — and a digital microscope camera "to track body size and development ... for weeks on end."
Muzzaitti told CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning his home lab was home to "a couple hundred" crickets over the span of the experiment.
Luckily for Muzzatti, and despite their reputation, his new roommates didn't make a lot of noise. "They don't chirp right away. They start chirping once the males reach adulthood and they have fully formed wings that they use to chirp."
Muzzatti said that started happening around week five, "but it was pretty muffled by the incubator."
Muzzatti designed cricket "bed and breakfast" pods out of small plastic cups, the kind restaurants sometimes use for condiments.
"Inside the container each cricket has a small little plastic feeding vial. I also had ... dental cotton [that was] saturated so the crickets could drink," said Muzzatti. He also tucked a small scrap of egg carton into each shelter because "crickets like to hide."
Last summer, Muzzatti tried adding a very special ingredient to the crickets' feed: honeybee royal jelly. "Crickets are … omnivores. They'll feed on plant protein, but they'll also feed on animal protein," he explained.
The ones given the royal jelly grew larger and laid more eggs, he said. The next step is to determine the best ratio of nutrients for "optimal growth rate and optimal body size."
Next week, he'll start experimenting with feeding crickets a new kind of meal that includes egg white protein.
Insects as food for people and pets is a growing industry in Canada, according to Muzzatti, and the powder has all kinds of uses.
"The options are sort of endless," said Muzzatti. "It's up to you to be creative with cricket powder."
So what does it taste like? "A slight nutty flavour, sort of like a sunflower flavour, but it's definitely a unique taste," said Muzzatti, who sometimes sprinkles cricket powder in his pasta sauce.
"I strongly believe this is a potential solution for the future. I'm not an advocate that you should completely switch from meat protein and only eat insect protein, but I think it's a really great, nutritious, additional substitute in your diet."