Farming insects may be more sustainable than raising meat, but so far that hasn't been quite enough to convince most Westerners to eat them.
Marketing them as delicious, exquisite delicacies, though? That might do the trick.
The global demand for meat drives environmental decline, from forest depletion and soil erosion to increased water use and the release of greenhouse gases.
Insect farming is easier on the environment, says Joost Van Itterbeeck, visiting scientist at Rikkyo University in Tokyo and co-author of the book Edible Insects: Future Prospects for Food and Feed Security. And, he adds, "The nutritional benefits are very obvious in terms of proteins, minerals and vitamins."
But as nice as that all sounds, Westerners are just plain disgusted by bugs on the dinner plate. And save-the-planet discussions don't seem to be changing their minds.
Current marketing tactics for eating insects tend to point out environmental and health benefits. But a new study published in Frontiers in Nutrition suggests it might be better to focus on taste and experience, such as highlighting how much dragonflies taste like soft-shelled crabs.
Hiding crickets in cookies
This doesn't come as a surprise to Kathy Rolin, who knows something about getting people to try edible insects.
She and her husband, James, originally started their business, Cowboy Cricket Farms, to sell whole frozen crickets to food manufacturers. After finding that more first-time bug eaters opt for cookies baked with cricket flour instead of a whole cricket, they decided to expand their business to sell Chocolate Chirp Cookies directly to consumers.
They found the Chocolate Chirps had better profit margins. "We mainly market the cookies, because who doesn't like a chocolate cookie?" says Kathy Rolin.
There have been calls to appeal to consumers' tastes before, but now there is evidence that appealing to the senses might actually work.
The study shows that a willingness to try edible insects - in this case, a chocolate-covered mealworm - depends on what advertisement a person reads before deciding whether to eat it. When the ad focused on taste and experience, rather than environmental or health claims, more people would try the worms.
In the study, 180 volunteers reviewed informational flyers on an edible insect start-up company. The wording differed only in one sentence: "Eating meat has never been so _______," meat referring to the meaty part of the insect in this case. The sentence ended with either "good for the environment," "good for the body," "exotic" or "delicious." The latter two were considered by the researchers as hedonic marketing that appealed to the senses.
After reflecting on the ad, participants were then given the option to try a chocolate mealworm truffle, which contained whole and visible worms. Participants who read the hedonic marketing claims were more likely to try the truffle, which the researchers attributed to higher-quality expectations suggested by the advertisements.
Promoting taste may convince more people to try insects because it veers our reaction away from disgust. "It's not a rational response," says Val Curtis, a professor at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and author of the book Don't Look, Don't Touch, the Science Behind Revulsion. "We have an innate response to things that might make us sick by feeling disgusted and, therefore, don't want to consume them."
Disgust can be easily generalized, and bugs on the dinner plate trigger the "ick" reaction because we associate them with the cockroach scurrying across the floor. The result? A ruined appetite.
Telling people to eat insects for the sake of the planet, the researchers argue, won't convince a stomach that has already said "no."
"Saving the planet is not something we've evolved to do," notes Curtis.
Instead, the researchers suggest that hedonic advertising is a better way to entice would-be diners to eat bugs, because it helps prevent the disgust response.
The cockroach rises
If we can clear that hurdle, insects could potentially become as common as lobster - which was once referred to as the "cockroach of the sea" and fed to prisoners and servants. But when railways began to spread across America and lobster was served to unsuspecting travelers - who didn't know that the crustaceans were considered "trash food" - the passengers took a liking to the taste, and lobster began to soar in popularity.
A related story surrounds sushi, which didn't start gaining widespread acceptance in the U.S. until the mid-'60s. When high-end restaurants started serving raw fish, it went from unpalatable to popular.
Now, both lobster and sushi are considered delicacies, a trend that was propelled by another effective form of advertising: status appeal.
Rolin thinks insects could follow the same trend. "We've noticed that there's been quite a few celebrities that have endorsed the idea of [eating] insects." Recently, actress Nicole Kidman revealed her "secret talent" of bug consumption in a Vanity Fair video by eating a four-course insect meal complete with fried grasshopper dessert, and singer Justin Timberlake served up bug dishes at a recent album release party.
Marketing campaigns that focus on a favorable bug-eating experience, perhaps by showing celebrities eating them, might be enough to distract people from the disgust response long enough to get them to try it.
Reframing the bug
"I would say if you're going to market insects, you take them as far away from anything slimy or crawling or creepy or too leggy," says Curtis. "Meat is sold as a tasty product, and all pictures of animals have been taken off the packaging. I would say just do exactly the same with insects."
One way to do this is by changing the name of the dish. We've done this with other foods: We eat pork, not pig; and beef, not cow. When serving ant larvae, it may be better to use their alternative food name: escamoles, a delicacy served in Mexico City.
While taste and experience may prove to be a good way to promote eating insects, that shouldn't discount environmental claims. Eco-friendly campaigns do get people to think more about food sustainability; they're just not quite enough to get most people to put their money where their mouth is, so to speak.
But by advertising escamoles in garlic sauce with cilantro and chipotle? It just might.
Berly McCoy is a freelance science writer living in Northwest Montana. Follow her on Twitter: @travlinscientst