Bugs: A strange case of amnesia

Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock

Related tags Edible insects Food

Please don’t get me wrong, I am not a fervent entomophagist; I am just passionate about edible insects as a new food industry. 

And so should everybody else because insects will very likely play an important role in the near future, probably integrated with common foods and available either on plates in a restaurant or as packaged goods on a retailer’s shelves.

But, how is this going to happen? For centuries we have eaten the big animals, and forgotten that we can eat also the small ones. How can we come to realise that insects do not necessarily have to be “untouchable​”? 

Let us consider this scenario: you go to the supermarket around the corner from your home and find some silkworm flour cookies or pasta made from crickets (like the brand my company manufactures). How would this make you feel?

Undoubtedly, for first-timers, an emotional response, possibly a strong one, would be triggered. What happens next? 

My guess is this: many people would buy that edible insect product to find that it tastes good and is not in any way strange. Their experience helps them to cancel out that gigantic taboo, just like that. 

At a very reasonable cost—both emotionally and economically—we turn the corner. Because we have done so in the comfort of eating something familiar, like pasta, cookies or energy bars, it won’t feel to be in any way disgusting, especially with crickets and cricket flour. Crickets are exactly like shrimps, just cleaner. Logically, it shouldn’t be a big deal.

In this example, the consumer does not really see an insect; he just eats something that’s made from it. To overcome something as deep as an instinct—an instinctive aversion to the contents of a product—we need to do so softly. That is why I do not like to put photos of insects on my packaging. Yet among the community of "ento-preneurs” and their supporters, this kind of representation is very common, like showing someone munching on a tarantula or chowing down on a water bug. 

This, I think, is an obstacle. The experience with processed edible insect food is extreme as a concept, but it does not have to be extreme visually. By avoiding the visual impact, even my mother (a very traditional Italian mum) had no issue in eating a product made partly from crickets.

Since edible insects hit the media two years ago, discussions have sometimes focused on eating whole insects, sometimes raw. However, as Ophelia Deroy and colleagues wrote in “The insectivore’s dilemma, and how to take the West out of it​”, a 2015 research paper: “The first thing to stress here is the importance of cooking and recipes: there is all the difference in the world between eating a raw insect and consuming a cooked one​.” 

Add insects to familiar food products like cookies, pasta and chips, and you get a "disgust inhibitor​”: this is the way to go, since the concept of edible insects makes total sense, though people rarely discuss this rationally. 

North America and Europe abandoned insects as food a long time ago, for reasons that do not exist anymore. For example, in the past, insects were associated with pests that destroyed crops. Think “Vegetable destroyers​!” If this were a movie, the bugs would play the role of the bad guy for sure. 

I asked Jenny Josephs, a research psychologist, her opinion on the matter. She said: “The main reason some of us might experience a ‘yuck’ effect when approaching edible insects is that we have no experience of eating them. It is not in our culture. So we categorise insects as things that bite, sting or crawl on us, or as things that infest our food​.”

We tend to generalise from one type of insect to another as we haven't grown up to be taught that insects taste good, or that they are a suitable source of food, she added. 

I believe that insects will be a common and widely accepted ingredient in many food dishes in years to come. Early adopters, for example, seem to enjoy insect food for its taste and many benefits. They are often excited to tell others that this once ‘strange’ idea is actually pretty good and that they are the ones to help set a future trend​.”

The culture clash with insects may also have economical roots. In many Western countries, cows have been traditionally viewed as economically convenient to rear for meat, whereas wild insects were not such a good option comparatively. 

Yet today, cattle is the main cause of pollution and the least sustainable food in the world, which we know to be scientifically true. Insects in the tropics are large and plentiful. How things have changed. 

So how do we make people aware of this? One thing is for certain: logic is not enough. If we try to rationalise with consumers, some may even argue that we should be farming rabbits and cats for food instead of cattle, as they are almost biologically identical. Behavioural change is not driven by logic.

I believe that curiosity, instead, is more powerful. The attraction to experiencing and being a part of a great cultural leap may push people to purchase edible insect products, even if they cost more initially. Soon, production will scale up, and this will push down costs and allow the superior nutritional properties of insects  play the starring role in competing with other foods.

We need to make insects of interest and challenge people to eat them. That would hopefully go some way to taking away the dilemma from the insectivore, and win hearts and minds in the West. 

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1 comment

Bugs as an ingredient

Posted by Ken Dods,

A focus on identification of bug characteristics which when isolated impart functional properties (thickeners emulsifiers)enhance shelf life (antioxidant characteristics)or enhanced nutritional aspects (Amino Acid or Vitamins)can lead to protein isolates or functional ingredient manufacture which is not tainted by traditional views of what bugs look like. Nobody has cared that food colours have been sourced from bugs and used in food because it is an isolate that is presented where the connection has not been made. All food is chemistry in action. If the focus is composition value of the ingredient the discussion about the source can disappear.

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