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Yum! Insect food as a luxury brand might lure Westerners

Locust soufflé. Mealworm chocolate truffles. Caterpillar lasagna.Mouth-watering enough for you? If a...

Posted: Oct 2, 2018 11:01 AM
Updated: Oct 2, 2018 11:01 AM

Locust soufflé. Mealworm chocolate truffles. Caterpillar lasagna.

Mouth-watering enough for you? If acquainting Western taste buds with insect food is a tall order, maybe it's time to try the time-honored ploys of advertising, new research suggests.

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Promoting insects as tasty -- or even as a luxurious delicacy -- could help change both attitudes and menus, according to a study published Tuesday in the journal Frontiers in Nutrition.

"Many people think of insects having a similar taste (not necessarily texture) as nuts," Sebastian Berger, lead author of the study and an assistant professor of organization at the University of Bern in Switzerland, wrote in an email.

What 'works better'?

Lobsters are far from pretty. Your average crayfish would never win a beauty contest. But dip these unsightly creatures in warm butter, and they become instantly pleasing to many palates. Why, then, do we gag at the thought of eating insects?

Apparently, only Westerners get squeamish when seeing antennae on their plates. "The majority of humans eat insects (or come from a culture in which insect-eating is normal)," Berger wrote, though he admitted that in the Western world, "it is rather uncommon."

Entomophagy, the scientific word for eating insects, is commonly practiced in at least 113 countries, according to a recent study. And with more than 2,000 documented edible species, insects have won the approval of the United Nations, which recommends them as a potential solution to the global food shortage. They're also environmentally friendly, said Berger, who said insect food can be produced with a fraction of the gas emissions that go into livestock production. Nutritional studies have shown insects to be a good source of protein by weight, though fat content and vitamin levels vary across insect species.

All good, but will insect food actually make its way to Western plates?

Berger and his colleagues recruited 180 German volunteers from the streets of Cologne to better understand what might persuade them to at least try insect food. Some of the participants viewed advertisements from an insect-based food company that highlighted environmental or health benefits of this food, while others saw ads showcasing the delicious taste of insect treats.

Next, the volunteers completed a questionnaire about why they might want to try (or not try) a mealworm chocolate truffle and what they would expect of it. Those who chose to dive in were served a truffle and then asked to rate its taste.

Participants who saw the taste-promoting ads rated the truffle's taste more highly but only "marginally" so. Insects reportedly have a very mild taste and depend on a preparation method for flavor; in this case, chocolate would predominate.

Overall, the ads promoting health and environmental benefits were less likely to inspire participants to try the truffle than ads making claims to its pleasure.

People's aversion to insect food is largely emotional, so appealing to reason and long-term issues such as health or environmental benefits is a difficult argument to make, Berger said, explaining the psychology underlying his study's finding. Luring people with immediate goals, such as tastefulness, "works better," he said.

'Too disgusting'

Darja Dobermann, a researcher at the University of Nottingham and Rothamsted Research, stated in an email that the psychology of any food consumption "is rather more complex than we realise."

Dobermann, who was not involved in the new study, noted that she is not a consumption psychologist but that "all over the globe," researchers, including Jonas House of Wageningen University & Research in the Netherlands, are "looking into how to incorporate insects into diets more easily."

In cultures where the food is commonplace, she noted, "Insects are fried, boiled, roasted, and put into stews just as you would other animal-based protein sources."

"I have focused on the other side of insects as food and feed, the production and nutrition side," she said. "Mostly we have examined approaches to sustainable production of insects and if that is really feasible." Working with collaborators from countries where insects are an established part of the diet, the driver of her own research has been a desire to know "nutritional benefit and safety of consumption" just as "anyone wants to know about any food that is a part of their diet."

When it comes to Westerners embracing insects, Berger recalled the history of lobsters, which until the late 19th century had a negative reputation as food and so were fed to slaves, servants and prisoners in the New England towns of the United States where they were plentiful and cheap. Some towns enacted laws to prevent prisoners from being fed them too frequently, Berger explained: "It would be too disgusting to give more to them. Nowadays, lobster is a premier dish."

Similarly, insects may undergo a sea change in reputation, Berger said. "In fact, Christian Bärtsch (our co-author) has authored a cook book in which Switzerland's Michelin star chefs come up with insect-dishes that 'wow' the clients."

In more humble quarters, items like cricket flour, which is rich in protein and healthier than traditional meats, can easily produce falafel or similar meal components.

"Switzerland has legalized insects as food in May 2017, the rest of the EU in January 2018," Berger said. "Things may change."

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