Don’t eat bugs to save the world, but because they’re tasty

There are simply too many people on the planet – and too many people yet to be born – to feed them all with protein derived from chickens, sheep, pigs, and cows. Our carnivorous impulses are to blame, at least in part, for the increasing loss of biodiversity and wild landscapes across the planet, as forests, jungles, and savannahs are converted into pastures for domestic livestock. One possible strategy is to convince more people that insects are a viable source of protein as well. But it’s been an uphill battle.

The main reason that most folks in the Western world have avoided insectivory is the disgust factor. Bugs make us go “eww” not “yum,” and that’s despite the fact some of the most prized dishes in our culture, like crab and lobster, are arthropods themselves. That’s why, according to University of London researcher Ophelia Deroy, it’s futile to try to convince folks to eat insects on the basis of logic alone. Writing this week in the journal Nature, she points out that 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.” It’s not a rational decision, but a visceral, emotional one.

Instead of tailoring the entomophagy message around environmental benefits, Deroy thinks that the message should instead be tailored around taste. In that view, it isn’t that insects are an “alternative” to meat, but that they’re delicious on their own. Indeed, in most parts of the world, insects are presented in interesting ways and offered as genuine competitors to other dishes. “These insects are eaten by choice, not necessity,” she says. To become a viable option in the West, eating bugs has to be more enticing than eating, well, vegetables.

Chefs have long known that taste is dictated by more than flavor and smell; presentation matters, as does psychology. In one of the few studies to address the matter, Belgian restaurant goers were more likely to accept eating insects (mealworms and crickets) if they were cooked using familiar flavors.

And most of all, food selection comes down to trust. If food providers begin to include things like “insect matter” in their recipes, consumers will quite reasonably be cautious and skeptical. Just what is insect matter? Which species might be used? From where are they sourced? To that end, just as fried chicken with mashed potatoes is not labeled on a restaurant menu as fried bird with mashed tubers, insects ought to be described in more specific – but palatable – ways. When the grotesque-looking Patagonian toothfish was renamed “Chilean sea bass” it became a seafood restaurant staple, after all.

My own experiences are consistent with Deroy’s arguments. When insects are included as a novelty or as a replacement, the result is usually underwhelming. Indeed, as one pair of reporters recently discovered, simply replacing wheat flour with bug flour doesn’t make for tasty cookies.

On the other hand, when whole, farmed crickets are sauted in a mix of garlic and onions, the resulting tacos can be quite tasty and pack a satisfying crunch. Just don’t forget the toothpicks…getting an antenna stuck between your teeth is just the worst. – Jason G. Goldman | 29 May 2015

Source: Deroy, O. (2015). Eat insects for fun, not to help the environment. Nature 521. DOI: 10.1038/521395a.

Header image: Fried grubs, sold by a street vender in Jinan, China. Wikimedia Commons/Stephen G. Johnson.