We all know that insects could help revolutionize our food system, they are the kings of sustainability, they help limit animal suffering, and they are amazingly nutritious. The only problem is the “yuck” factor. Insects just aren’t a common food in the western world. Let’s look at the available science and our own experiences with edible insect products and formulate a plan to help people overcome the fear of eating insects.
Why do we fear eating insects?
Throughout our evolution insects have represented something potentially dangerous and our interactions with insects are still mostly negative. They are considered pests in farming and they are the things that “invade” our homes. When it comes to eating them we are conditioned to feel disgust, a reaction that evolved as a protection from things that might carry parasites and disease. We intuitively only eat what our mother feeds us so, disgust, like culture, is passed down from generation to generation. In the western world we reinforce this negative stance towards insects through books, movies, video games, and even TV shows like Fear Factor that make eating insects seem like an act of incredible bravery. But this is not the norm for everyone. For example in Thailand people view insects in a different light – as a normal part of their diet. So, the key is to change our learned reaction. How do we do that?
Try flour instead of whole insects
Paul Rozin PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, ran a study in 2015 to find out more about attitudes toward insects as a food. He surveyed online samples of adults living in the USA and India and found that more than 72 % of participants were at least willing to consider eating some form of insect food. The biggest factors in deciding to eat insects were texture and cleanliness. That’s why participants were most likely to eat low levels of insect flour in a favourite food, and least likely to eat whole insects. Interestingly, participants most commonly perceived nutrition and sustainability as the benefits and disease and illness as the risks (1).
Delicious and trendy works better than sustainable
Another, more recent study from October 2018, compared different ways of communicating the benefits of edible insects. Before the 180 participants in the study were offered a chocolate truffle filled with mealworms, half of the group were given a flyer saying that eating insects was good for them and the environment, while the other half were told the insects were either delicious or trendy to eat. About 62 % of those given health or environmental incentives chose to eat the truffle, compared with 76 % who were told it would taste good or make them trendy. And the tasty & trendy group also rated the truffle as tastier. The researchers concluded that attitudes based on emotions are better than those grounded in rational claims (2).
A plan for the individual
Studies like this suggest there are several things a person has to know to be inclined to give eating insects a try. First, insects must feel SAFE. It helps to know they were hygienically produced in a controlled environment and lab tested. Then they should be socially accepted, a NORMAL part of a diet. That is true for about 2 billion people around the world already but not yet in the western world. They should also be INVISIBLE, hidden within a popular food in a form of flour. And lastly, there needs to be an emotional appeal. That person should to know how HEALTHY insects are, full of protein, vitamin B12, iron, fibre, and many other beneficial nutrients. And they should know how DELICIOUS the food is.
A plan for the western world
From our own experience, we can confirm that getting people to try a familiar food, like bread or energy bars, with added cricket flour makes it far more likely to be a success than offering them whole crickets. We also know that when people experience how delicious these foods are their disgust reaction changes. The sustainability and ethics arguments then help them rationalize the decision. With each returning customer and every new delicious insect-based food we are certain that insects can make the same public opinion switch as Sushi or Lobster did years ago.
If you’re excited about edible insects just like we are, then help us grow this trend. Introduce your family and friends to foods made with insect flour, share your experiences on social media, and let people know that insect based products are delicious and here to stay!
1) P. Rozin et al., ‘Determinants of willingness to eat insects in the USA and India’, Journal of Insects as Food and Feed 2015, https://www.wageningenacademic.com/doi/10.3920/JIFF2015.0029
2) Sebastian Berger et al., ‘When Utilitarian Claims Backfire: Advertising Content and the Uptake of Insects as Food’, Front. Nutr. 2018, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6175990/