On a crisp August morning in southeastern Pennsylvania, more than twelve children and adults were seated in a pavilion watching mealworms cook in a hot pot. The group was learning about entomophagy human consumption by edible insects insects with Lisa Sanchez, a naturalist working for the Lancaster County Department of Parks and Recreation who has been teaching the technique for more than 25 years.
The mealworm suddenly sputtered out from the pan. Six-year-old Adaline Welk, without any prompting, took it out of her mouth. The crowd was cheering for the newly-minted entomophagous. “It’s not that bad!” she declared. “It kind of tastes like kettle corn!”
Sanchez suggests that people consume insects, for example, to lessen the footprint of their environment. The cultivated insects produce much fewer greenhouse gases and consume less water and land than traditional livestock. They also produce more biomass, requiring lesser effort. Crickets, for instance, are twelve fois more effective than cattle when it comes to turning food into edible mass.
Already, two billion people consume insects, by one report, most of them in Africa, Latin America, and Asia. This practice is a long-standing tradition dating back millennia. “I always thought, even back in the ’90s, someday, maybe, [Americans] will do this,” Sanchez declares.
The next few years could prove that she is correct. The market for edible insects is growing rapidly –one study predicts that the market will be $9.6 billion in 2030. The market is already stocked with foods like salted ants Amazon and cricket protein powder bars at Swiss supermarkets. The past few years have seen several news stories promoting the virtues of eating insects.
However, before insects become the norm, more people must be convinced that these six-legged insects are, in reality, food. Through experiments with tasting, surveys, and educational demonstrations, scientists, educators, and entrepreneurs are examining the psychology of consumers and discovering that the resistance to eating insects can be very strong.
“Getting over the initial disgust of the idea of eating something that is often thought of as dirty and unclean is a big barrier,” says Matthew Ruby, a lecturer in psychology at La Trobe University in Albury-Wodonga, Australia, who has studied the issue.
However, researchers find that disgust fades once people try to taste insects. In the 2022 Spanish study, participants felt more positive about pizzas that were topped with mealworms after tasting them. So, how do you make people take the first bite?
A bite to start
“We repeatedly find that if you don’t see the insects, people are much more open to eating” insects, according to Ruby. In an online survey of 177 American adults, his research team found that, on average, people were at ease with eating cookies containing as much as 30 % ground fly larvae used as flour.
“Most people don’t want to eat a cow that looks like a cow,” says Charles Wilson, founder of Cricket Flours, based in Portland, Ore. Cricket Flours sells whole insects to snack on as well as brownie mix that is enriched by Cricket powder (ground cricket) and pure cricket powder that customers can discreetly mix into baked items or shakes of protein.
The presence of bugs on food packaging may affect consumers, according to Dror Tamir, co-founder, and CEO of Hargol FoodTech in Israel. “We did a lot of trials working with consumers to have their feedback on how much we should emphasize the grasshoppers,” Dr. Tamir states. “Having the grasshoppers in front of the package is not good for us.”
Harold, founded in 2016, was an early company that managed to cultivate an animal species commercially. The products it sells are mostly from other producers of food. It also sells packaged products online by subscribing to its brand, Biblical Protein. Harold’s chocolate protein shake mixes show an oozy liquid flowing into glasses — no legs, wings, or antennae are visible.
After people try ground insects, they’re usually looking forward to the real bug, says Joseph Yoon, founder of Brooklyn Bugs, an organization committed to promoting appreciation of edible insects. Formerly an executive chef, Yoon is now a chef for insects, giving demonstrations and food tastings at museums, schools, and universities. Yoon may offer newbies gougeres (French cheese puffs) from cricket powder. “They are usually almost immediately ready to see [the insect],” Yoon says. Yoon. “They’re like, “I ate the cricket’s gougeres. It was simple. I could have it all day. Okay, let me have something different.'”
Marketing continues as normal.
However, before people are compelled to buy a bag of dried crickets, businesses need to draw them in with ads. “Telling people that they should eat more insects because it’s good for them and good for the planet doesn’t seem to have much effect on behavior,” says the research scientist and psychologist Charles Spence of the University of Oxford in England.
In the 2022 research study, his team instead experimented with a tried-and-true marketing strategy: celebrity endorsement. Researchers showed fictional ads for food products made of insects to more than 1,000 people in the United States. People who watched ads featuring sports stars like Serena Williams and Roger Federer or actors like Ryan Reynolds and Angelina Jolie reported that they were likelier to test the product than those who did not see ads featuring stars.
According to Spence, the research suggests that marketers don’t need to reinvent their advertising strategies to market insects.
“Taste is King”
However, food flavor can determine the likelihood of someone returning to eat more. Yoon shows people how to incorporate insects into their dishes with appealing methods. For instance, the addition of cricket powder to marinara sauce is not just good for nutrition but also umami. “Taste is king,” Tamir declares. Tamir says that Grasshoppers are a source of “umami flavor, primarily pecans, mushrooms, coffee, and chocolate. They can enhance the meaty flavor.”
Harold works with meat processing companies from the United States, Canada, and Asia to develop products such as sausages, meatballs, and burgers which will include beef, chicken, and other sources of protein with ground grasshoppers.
In pointing to a photo of a grasshopper and chicken prototype for a patty, Tamir outlines Hargol’s selling features: It’s better tasting than other burgers thanks to the unique ingredient (which is not named by Tamir). “And then we can explain it is better for the environment; it is better for your health.”
The creation of a new standard
Watching others enjoying insects could be a way to break the barriers. In Sanchez’s entomophagy courses, she explains her pleasure in eating insects for herself. She does not force anyone to try eating insects. However, most, she claims, are willing to.
The pavilion was still located in Lancaster County; after Welk put the cooked mealworm in her mouth, many other people followed her lead. Her 8-year-old sister, Leona, wasn’t so certain. They’re better than sprinkles, Sanchez told her.
Leona observed as her family members were able to try the insects. The show was about to end when she went to the demonstration table, grabbed an insect mealworm, and took a bite. “It didn’t taste like anything,” she said. “I’m still not putting them on my ice cream.”