Eating Bugs: Aesthetics Matter
Eating insects is gaining more and more popularity in alternative and sustainability circles. In 2013, the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization argued entomophagy, the technical term for eating insects, would likely be essential to feeding the world. Insects use less land and water, boast a relatively high feed conversion efficiency, can be raised on organic side-streams, help reduce environmental contamination and emit fewer greenhouse gases and less ammonia compared to traditional livestock. Worldwide, 2 billion people already eat bugs on a regular basis.
The argument for entomophagy as a sustainable protein is solid but it is not swaying mainstream American audiences. What will it take for bug-eating to catch on?
Ophelia Deroy, a British researcher specializing in cognitive neuroscience, explains: “These messages use rational reasons to try to overturn the presumed major psychological objection to eating insects — disgust. This strategy assumes that the revulsion people feel when presented with, say, house-fly pupae (protein content 62%!), is a cognitive process that can be addressed through education.”
But the focus on disgust, and rationality, might be misguided. After all, Westerners have little issue eating bottom-dwelling seafood or hogs. Deroy emphasizes: “We should think less about combating disgust and more about appealing to taste. 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. These insects are eaten by choice, not necessity. This obvious fact is missed by most of the current research and policies.”
We need to start focusing on presentation and taste not rational environmental arguments: “Taste is affected by more than the flavour and smell of food. Also important is colour, the other visual images associated with the food and the name it is presented under. The re-naming of the (rather ugly) Patagonian toothfish as Chilean sea bass, for example, led to a sharp increase in sales. In one of the few studies to have been conducted so far, Belgian consumers were shown to accept insects (mealworms and house crickets) more readily when they were prepared using familiar flavours.”
Deroy urges: “If we are serious about broadening the appeal of insects as food — and we should be — then the images we present to consumers should not be of industrially farmed meat substitute.”
She concludes: “Most importantly, before we try to change the minds of consumers, we must understand their objections. And to overcome these objections, food scientists, chefs and psychologists must work together to make insect dishes appeal as food, not as a way to save the planet.”
If you’ve eaten bugs, what ultimately convinced you to try them?