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From left to right, judges Yasmin Akhtar, Lui Xia Lee and David Speight, prepare to taste the ginger cookies with mealworms, created by students Mariam Alkandari and Evelyn Springer, during the Great UBC Bug Bake Off, on campus in Vancouver on Nov. 28.Tijana Martin/The Globe and Mail

Evelyn Springer, a third-year student in applied animal biology at the University of British Columbia, has a holiday tradition of baking festive ginger cookies. But this year, she’s added a new ingredient to her usual family recipe: mealworms.

Ms. Springer baked the treats as part of her final assignment for the course “Insects as Food and Feed” during the Great UBC Bug Bake Off last week.

“I never really thought about eating insects before this class, if I’m going to be honest,” Ms. Springer said recently.

Now, Ms. Springer and her classmates have become advocates of the nutritional and environmental benefits of entomophagy – the practice of eating bugs – thanks to their instructor, Yasmin Akhtar.

“Talking alone is not enough,” Dr. Akhtar said. “When they cook it themselves, get more creative, then they realize the importance of insects.”

Dr. Akhtar’s course teaches students of UBC’s Faculty of Land and Food Systems the risks and benefits of eating insects with the goal of reducing the stigma around consuming them.

“If they have some kind of fear or negative perception of insects, or they don’t like the texture or taste, by incorporating them into flour for baking purposes that flavour is gone [and] they can enjoy the benefits of the insects,” Dr. Akhtar said.

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Tijana Martin/The Globe and Mail

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Food created with the use of insects, on display during the Great UBC Bug Bake Off.Tijana Martin/The Globe and Mail

Certain species of cricket have almost double the protein per gram of beef and contain all nine essential amino acids. Insect farming also has environmental benefits, requiring significantly less space and water and emitting less greenhouse gases than livestock.

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During the bake-off, four teams of students competed to see who could make the best insect-laden dish.

Dishes included tacos with homemade cricket-flour tortillas, a lemon-cricket cheesecake, cranberry-cricket shortbread cookies and Ms. Springer’s ginger mealworm cookies.

To someone who didn’t know their secret ingredients, the dishes would have appeared totally benign, even by taste, as confirmed by the competition’s adjudicators.

“All the dishes today, none of them had this ick insect factor either in presentation or flavour,” said UBC executive chef and culinary director David Speight, one of the judges.

Mr. Speight acknowledged the nutritional and environmental benefits but conceded that insects as ingredients haven’t quite swept the culinary world.

“For insects, I think they have an even tougher struggle,” Mr. Speight said. “It’s more in the research and in the classroom than it is in the professional kitchens.”

Dr. Akhtar explained that bugs as part of a menu is a practice already common in countries such as Mexico and Colombia and parts of Southeast Asia and Africa.

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Judge David Speight tastes a ginger cookie created by students with the use of mealworms.Tijana Martin/The Globe and Mail

“In Western countries, they are a little bit hesitant, but their perception is changing,” Dr. Akhtar said.

According to a 2022 report from Natural Products Canada, there are more than a dozen active insect farms in this country. These businesses not only make the sustainable source of protein more accessible to Canadian consumers, but they also create jobs for prospective agriculture workers like Rachel Yeung, another of Dr. Akhtar’s students.

“It’s not just something that’s far away. It’s possible here too,” said Ms. Yeung, who is graduating next semester and interested in a job in insect agriculture.

Ms. Springer’s ginger mealworm cookies didn’t ultimately secure her the bake-off prize. Instead, it went to a pair of students who prepared cricket cookies and a pound cake.

But Ms. Springer said she will continue experimenting with bugs in the kitchen – and she encourages others to do the same.

“I think everyone should try them at least once.”

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