From “Gross” to “Green”: How Insects Can Become a Popular Food Source
By Andrew Porterfield
Over the past decade or so, the idea of eating insects has progressed from schoolyard dare to a very real solution to maintain a secure global food supply. Already common among 2 billion people worldwide, even reluctant Western countries are looking at entomophagy as a way to provide sustainable, relatively healthy protein sources, especially as the world population grows.
Edible insects are high in protein, fat, and energy and are a good source of vitamins and minerals. Consumption of red meat and poultry have costly environmental consequences, including greenhouse gas production, water, and land use. Insects require fractions of the water and land needed for larger animals and produce far lower levels of greenhouse gases.
But at least in the west (such as the United States, Canada, and Western Europe), the “ew” factor is still a strong deterrent to eating bugs (and other six-legged varieties). How could western diets be expanded to include insects, considering this high cultural barrier? The answer, it turns out, could lie in a corollary of the schoolyard dare—children.
Senior academic Matilda Collins, graduate student Pauline Vaskou, and economist Yiannis Kountouris of Imperial College London conducted two large surveys of children and parents in London and an online consumer survey of British and French consumers to determine the potential for insect-based diets, at least in those two countries. They found that, approached the right way, children were most open to the possibility of eating insects. Their findings were published in a special collection of papers on “Insects as Food and Feed” in Annals of the Entomological Society of America.
For their in-person survey, the researchers questioned 161 students and their parents at two schools in London, one primary school (with six- to 12-year-olds) and one secondary school (ages from 13-16 years). For the online survey, they contacted 1,020 French and British adult consumers.
School children were asked if they knew insects could be eaten for food. Then, while their eyes were closed to reduce peer pressure, they were asked to raise their hands if they would eat insects. The researchers then made a presentation on the benefits of insects as food. Students then answered a one-page questionnaire; parents also filled out a questionnaire.
For the online survey, participants were asked their opinions on eating insects, their willingness to pay for insect protein, and what type of insect food they would prefer.
A “Sweet Spot” for Insect Food Marketing
The surveys found that six- to 11-year-olds showed the most interest in consuming insect products, indicating what the researchers called a “sweet spot” for insect marketing. In addition, girls appeared less resistant to the idea than did boys, although adult women and men were equally likely to be willing to pay for insect food.
The appearance of insects in food (as opposed to being ground up and processed) produced a mixed reaction among respondents. People who exercised regularly or had already eaten insect food were more likely to select a food alternative with visible insects. However, British adults, younger people, meat eaters, “green” shoppers, postgraduate degree holders, and females were less likely to choose visible insects. French adult respondents did not value the benefits of insect food products, while British respondents were more readily disgusted by visible insects.
The study indicates a number of marketing strategies that could be implemented to help boost support for consumer insect-based food. Targeting younger children, regular exercisers, and previous consumers all could in their own way help make insect consumption more acceptable. Meat eaters were also more likely to pay for insect foods than were vegetarians, the study found. The study found that most of those questioned were aware of the practice of traditional insect-eating but knew less about the nutritional benefits of insect food or the range of available insect-based products.
But the strongest way to overcome the “gross” factor will likely be through children. “One surprise to me was how curious the younger children can be and how they positively reinforce each other in a slightly teasing and daring way,” Collins said. “The teens were more diffident. I suspect the gender effect is that the teen girls pay closer to the information than many teen boys.”
Could this openness last through adulthood? Yes, Collins said. “I do think that once acceptance or preference is formed, then it will stay for life. There is evidence from cross-cultural diet studies that this generally holds true.”
Annals of the Entomological Society of America
Andrew Porterfield is a writer, editor, and communications consultant for academic institutions, companies, and nonprofits in the life sciences. He writes frequently about agriculture issues for the Genetic Literacy Project. He is based in Camarillo, California. Follow him on Twitter at @AMPorterfield or visit his Facebook page.