In general, it’s hard to convince people to eat bugs — but that hasn’t stopped policymakers from trying.
For years, sustainable food experts in Western countries have pushed the insect-eating agenda, touting the practice’s nutritional and environmental benefits. Insects are high in protein, relatively inexpensive to raise and have a lower carbon footprint than other food animals like cows or chickens, they often argue. And in other areas of the world, including parts of Africa, Asia and Central and South America, insects are a regular part of the local cuisine.
Even the United Nations has gotten on board. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has laid out a series of arguments in favor of insectivory — the practice of eating insects — in publications over the past decade, including its most recent 2013 report, “Edible insects: future prospects for food and feed security.”
But while a handful of gutsy restaurants and food manufacturers have started serving up creepy crawlies in dishes ranging from grasshopper tacos to cricket-flour cookies, insect eating has yet to really catch on the United States and other Western countries. And one University of London researcher has a theory about why.
In a commentary published today in Nature, researcher Ophelia Deroy argues that making insects seem more appealing, rather than simply making logical arguments about their benefits, is the key to getting consumers to eat them.
“Most of the insects eaten in the world are cooked as part of interesting preparations that make them a genuine competitor to other foods, and often a more attractive option,” writes Deroy, a researcher in the University of London’s Centre for the Study of the Senses. “These insects are eaten by choice, not necessity. This obvious fact is missed by most of the current research and policies.” Placing a greater emphasis on recipes and presentation, Deroy argues, may just be the key to swaying more people into giving them a shot.
It’s a tactic already being employed by some entrepreneurs. Greg Sewitz, co-CEO of a cricket-flour protein bar company called Exo (“Crickets are the new kale,” is its slogan), says his team’s primary focus from the get-go was on making sure their products tasted good. “We focus on how delicious the bugs taste and getting people to take that first bite,” Sewitz says.
He adds that grinding crickets into flour and making protein bars out of them — products that in no way resemble the six-legged crawlers used to make them — is probably a big part of their success. “I definitely think we’ve seen so much success because it’s not obvious to people that they’re eating insects, and that’s a very intentional choice,” Sewitz says. “From the get-go, everything was designed to not trigger anything on the psychological aversion people have toward insects in general.”
But Deroy thinks disgust isn’t the only issue standing between Western consumers and a plate of many-legged munchies. A bigger reason may be that people just like what they know. “We know the role of familiarity is very strong,” she says. “People are just usually reluctant to eat new foods.”
This may be one reason cricket-fueled protein bars are a hit: At their core, they’re a food that consumers are already familiar with and like. Deroy says adding insects into familiar dishes may be one way to help them catch on. “We need to learn to integrate insects to our daily recipes — not see them as exotic snacks,” she writes in a follow-up email.
As far as the rhetoric usually employed by policymakers goes, Deroy believes it’s just not that effective to tell people what kinds of choices are best for them. “Generally speaking, people eat the foods they like, not the foods that they should. So, it is fundamental to turn insects into a food they like, instead of telling them they should,” she writes in the e-mail. “Research shows that being normative and telling children what they should eat is not a solution. Why should it work any better with adults?”