3 Ways to Override Disgust at Eating Insects

CC BY 4.0. T.K.Naliaka / Wikimedia Commons

How do you convince people to eat something from which they instinctively recoil?

Despite knowing that insects are a more environmentally friendly form of protein than other animal meat, most people are reluctant to chow down on bugs. Even the most logical of facts (e.g. it takes 1.7 kg of feed to produce 1 kg of edible insects, compared to 10 kg of feed per 1 kg of beef) fails to override that automatic sense of disgust.

And yet, we desperately need to. Animal agriculture is driving greenhouse gas emissions, contaminating water supplies, incubating diseases while increasing antibiotic resistance, and perpetuating serious issues of animal cruelty; and these problems are only set to increase as the human population grows and starts eating more meat as well.

Experts in entomophagy (the official name for 'eating insects') believe that the trick to getting people to eat insects more readily lies in diverting our instinctive responses away from disgust. They propose several interesting ways for doing so.

First is to focus on how delicious and exotic an edible insect dish can be, rather than how environmentally responsible or healthy it is.

A study published last fall in the journal Frontiers in Nutrition found that "utilitarian claims backfire" when it comes to enticing eaters. It conducted an experiment in which participants were shown a sentence with one of four different endings. The sentence read, "Eating meat has never been so ____," with meat referring to the meaty part of the insect. The four different endings were "good for the environment," "good for the body," "exotic," or "delicious." The last two options are considered hedonic marketing, appealing to the senses. NPR described what happened:

"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."

A second technique to override disgust is to avoid showing pictures of whole insects on the packaging.

The odd person might find it interesting that a product contains insects, but most people instinctively want to divorce their edible protein from its animal source. This isn't necessarily a good thing; in fact, not acknowledging that meat comes from a live animal deludes many into assuming that factory farming is acceptable. But when it comes to insect farming (which has far fewer ethical concerns than livestock farming), perhaps this could be leveraged for good.

NPR's The Salt quotes Val Curtis, professor at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and author of a book on the science behind revulsion. She said,

"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. 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."

Finally, we should give insect-based foods different names.

Don't call them termites, caterpillars, or weevils. Call them something totally different – perhaps a name from a country where it's viewed as a delicacy and that will make it seem less gross to English speakers. An article in The Conversation supports this idea:

"The French term for insect – la bestiole – refers generally to a variety of disgusting insects like flies, cockroaches, bugs or even spiders (which of course are not insects) unfit for human consumption.
But people living in Africa have never considered edible insects as pests or a nuisance. Perhaps we need to think of a new appellation for edible insects to kill the disgust factor.
A simple language analogy between 30 ethnic groups in 12 sub-Saharan countries provided tentative names for edible termites. These are, 'Tsiswa', 'Chiswa', 'Chintuga', 'Inswa', 'Iswa', 'Sisi', 'Ishwa' or 'Esunsun'. Any of these indigenous names could be used to market termite-based products."

Think about it. Would you say yes to a delicious dish of "escamoles in garlic sauce with cilantro and chipotle," served up in Mexico City? Yes! There is no need to realize or dwell upon the fact that those escamoles are ant larvae. That they're tasty is all that matters, and the health and environmental benefits are a bonus.