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Food Science


Shape-changing pasta and edible-insect nutrition

by Craig Bettenhausen
May 22, 2021 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 99, Issue 19


Mighty morphin’ pasta wranglers

A noodle in the shape of a wave, and a flat noodle with a subtle groove pattern.
Credit: Morphing Matter Lab/Carnegie Mellon University
Noodle this: Mathematically arranged grooves make this pasta curl while it cooks.

Look inside a box of penne. The actual pasta fills only about 33% of the volume. The rest is air. And while that empty space around 3D pasta shapes might not be a big deal in a grocery cart, it means that pasta companies are burning huge amounts of fuel shipping air. That’s costly and means more greenhouse gas emissions for every serving.

Ye Tao, now a professor at Zhejiang University City College, imagined a better way. In research published earlier this month in Science Advances, Tao and coworkers detailed a method to make flat pasta that can form 3D shapes during cooking (2021, DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.abf4098). They also included a pasta recipe in the materials and methods section, which the Newscripts gang tried on flat lasagna noodles with tasty results.

The key is patterns of millimeter-scale grooves stamped into the pasta. As the noodles cook, water swells them from the outside in, so the different thicknesses created by the grooves cause the pasta to curl and fold. Where the grooves collide, the surfaces leak amylopectin that glues the new shapes in place.

Commercial noodle makers such as Barilla have been experimenting with novel 3D-printed pasta shapes, but Tao’s stamp-based method is immensely more scalable, says Vittorio Saggiomo. Saggiomo is a chemistry professor in the Agrotechnology and Food Sciences Department at Wageningen University and Research and is an Italian cooking enthusiast. He says that in addition to more efficient packing, the morphing noodles could make for impressive table-side cooking displays at fancy restaurants.

Tao has published about pasta previously. What’s new here is not the idea of the grooves but a robust mathematical model for how they work. With that in hand, the team was able to create a broad and quantitative design strategy and thereby a suite of more-complex shapes. Waiter, I’d like the conical-frustum puttanesca, and my partner will have frangipani-flower-petal alfredo.


Healthy cricket food

Cookies on a cooling rack.
Credit: Craig Bettenhausen/C&EN
Eating bugs: You were probably expecting an insect photo, not this perfectly nice cookie. It’s made with 20% cricket flour.

Some say that eating too many carbs, like those in pasta, can lead to higher body fat in people. Crickets may have the same problem. That’s just one fascinating morsel from a recent study published in ACS Food Science and Technology (2021, DOI: 10.1021/acsfoodscitech.0c00083).

A team of Finnish researchers raised house crickets on three types of feed: one was a commercial chicken feed often used to rear crickets, and two were those the researchers made from locally abundant foods and food scraps. The idea was to compare the nutritional content of the resulting bugs. House crickets, you see, are “the favorite edible insects of Europeans,” the team writes.

Entomophagy, the eating of insects, is on the rise in Europe and North America and well established in other areas. According to the authors, the global edible insect market grew from $33 million to $55 million between 2015 and 2017 and is expected to keep increasing. It’s an environmental win. Crickets are less resource intensive than meat, converting about 1.7 kg of food into 1 kg of cricket mass, 5.8 times as efficient as beef. They’re also packed with fiber, vitamins, and minerals.

The crickets that got the feed highest in carbohydrates—one of the lab-made feeds—had the highest fat content and lowest protein. Their carbs weren’t from pasta, let alone 3D pasta, but rather a blend of oat, wheat, barley, brassica seed, potato skins, and fava beans. Overall, crickets are fattier than you might think—between 25 and 33% of their dry weight in this study—with a fatty acid profile similar to that of pork fat. Pork sirloin, by contrast, is about 7% fat.

Overall, the commercial chicken feed yielded the biggest, healthiest crickets. But the lab-made feeds weren’t far behind. Those results suggest that with supplemental vitamins and minerals, which the commercial feed had but the lab-made feeds did not, crickets could thrive on food scraps and agricultural side streams. That would bring down bug ranchers’ costs and bolster entomophagy’s already-strong sustainability appeal, inching insects ever closer to a place in mainstream kitchens.

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