Many Southeast Asians might wonder what all the fuss is all about as the insect ingredient industry looks at ways to make dietary bugs more enticing to Western consumers.
But while Thais, Cambodians and Indonesians savour their mealworm brochettes and locust fritters, some people in the region would rather steer clear.
In Malaysia, while eating insects is not unheard of, the practice is more commonly associated with the country’s traditional and indigenous cultures, such as ethic groups in Sarawak and those of Javanese descent elsewhere in Borneo.
In contrast, peninsula Malaysians tend to shun the idea with the same distaste that is becoming less commonly seen in Europe and North America, said Professor Idris bin Ghani, president of Malaysia’s Entomology Society.
To change this, Idris believes Malaysians need to be educated on the benefits that come with eating insects, although this is something that will not likely happen overnight.
“Eating insects is good for your health, especially to treat common illnesses and also to slow the ageing process down. But Malaysians need to be educated about it, and this may take some time,” he told FoodNavigator-Asia.
“To make insects more appealing to Malaysians, there must be more promotion and communication about how insects could contribute to health.”
Idris suggests that Malaysian attitudes towards insect nutrition might even be lagging behind opinion in the West, especially after a new report by research agency Canadean revealed that almost half of British consumers are willing to try bugs in their diet.
With 40 tonnes of insects for every human on earth, insects are an abundant, sustainable food source that is rich in protein, iron and calcium, and low in fat and cholesterol.
Touted as the new superfood by the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, insects also being seen as a sustainable answer to the global food stock crisis that is making many squirm.
“In Europe, consumers are quite open to trying new things, and many understand the benefits insects have, not only for their taste, but in terms of health,” added Idris.
The Canadean report also noted that one way to boost the appeal of insect-derived food is linking it in terms of flavour and design to cultures where insect-eating is more common, such as is the case in Africa and other parts of Southeast Asia.
“Receptiveness to insect-derived foods was higher among those who described themselves as eager to enjoy food from different cultures, with 51% of them willing to try insects,” Candean pointed out.
While that was one recommendation to get attract British consumers on bug bandwagon, convincing Malaysians in a part of the world where insect-eating is part of the culture will need a different spin.
Urban Malaysians are known to be more squeamish than those in the kampung, or hinterland villages, and Idris believes there is currently little drive for residents in cities like Kuala Lumpur, Penang and Johor Bahru to replace their laksa with cricket curries and worm wantons.
Living in the world’s seventh wettest country with plentiful food stocks, the concept of food security is yet to trouble Malaysians, the majority of whom see insect nutrition’s potential in terms of quirky meals, rather than as an essential move to provide food for future generations. But there is still hope for persuasive entomologists to have a bright future.
“As long as the food benefits the consumer, has no side effects, and is accepted as halal, then marketing insects will one day gain a better reception,” said Idris.