Edible Insects: The Science and Sensory Delight Behind the BugNug

When nutrition and dietetics major Adrianna Gonnella ’24 pursued an Arnold/Wheeler Scholarship (A/W) through the Family and Consumer Sciences Department, she had no idea she would end up developing a food product using insects.

“I have always had an entrepreneurial side, and my friend and I talked about starting a protein bar company,” Gonnella said. “I was also interested in renewable agriculture and sustainable farming and I started to wonder if I could combine these two interests.”

First year A/W Scholars dedicate most of their time to research, so Gonnella started studying different types of proteins and she came across an article about using insects for protein, which intrigued her. She learned that insect protein production requires seven times less water and 100 times less land than animal protein production (Van Huis & Oonincx, 2017) and there are already two billion people who consume over 2,000 varieties of insects around the world (La Barbera et al., 2018).

“Insects can greatly reduce methane emissions and they are full of bioavailable protein and other nutrients, all while being produced cheaply,” Gonnella explained. “I wanted to design my A/W project around how to convince people to consume insects by finding a palatable recipe.”

However, instead of creating a protein bar, she started developing the BugNug (as it was affectionately called)—a faux chicken nugget. Along with her faculty mentor, David Olds, Gonnella spent a lot of time in the food lab in Westlake Hall developing, testing, tasting and scrapping recipes trying to come up with an edible nugget that was also visually pleasing.

“I learned that food development takes a lot of trial and error, and I was thankful that Dr. Olds and I were able to use the food lab for a good chunk of time during the summer of 2023. He was really invested in my project to ensure I was successful,” Gonnella said.

Over time, there were significant changes to the recipe. Originally, Gonnella used grasshoppers, but she quickly discovered they weren’t as tasty as she had hoped. “They had a fishy flavor that was hard to mask and they were difficult to order, especially in bulk. Mealworms ended up being much milder and nutty, and were more readily available,” she explained.  

Other factors such as texture, color and binding the nuggets required several ingredient changes over time. She tested rice flour, oat flour and corn flour, with corn flour being the winner because it had a mild flavor and left the nuggets with a lighter texture.

Gonnella enlisted 44 participants—many friends and fellow dietetics majors—to complete a sensory analysis and post-consumption survey. Each person was given four BugNugs to sample, each with varying amounts of mealworm powder to corn flour ratios, and asked to rate each nugget based on five characteristics: crust color, interior color, texture, flavor and aftertaste.

“We determined that for each characteristic the mean (average) score was pretty significant, because the results were not random—they were due to changes in the recipe,” Gonnella explained. The nuggets with a higher percentage of mealworms had a lower score—i.e. participants didn’t like the taste. She also observed the participants looking very closely at the nuggets, which speaks to how important the appearance of the food is to consumers.

The post-survey results asked participants to rate their experience when presented with facts about the sustainability of the ingredients. “The panelists said they would be interested in other insect-based food items that were deemed sustainable, which shows how much social norm affects our food choices,” she revealed.

“Many people came to me after the study to tell me the nuggets were much  better than they expected and they would eat them again.” Some of her favorite comments were:  

  • “I could totally eat this as my post-gym snack.”
  • “I could eat this, but I wouldn’t if my mom made it for dinner.”
  • “Yummy, yummy bugs in my tummy.”

Although we won’t see BugNugs on the shelf any time soon, Gonnella was encouraged by her research and hopes that one day there will be an insect-based product at the grocery store. For now, she’s pursuing her master’s degree to become a dietician, but she’ll always cherish her time at Bradley.

“I had professors in the Family and Consumer Sciences Department who cared about me and supported me throughout my Arnold/Wheeler project. I also met my best friend and learned so much from my peers and from challenging each other to go further with our research” she explained. “I am so happy I made the decision to go to Bradley and I’m proud of the life I was able to build here.”

Emily Potts