Eating Insects And The Ick Factor
Entomophagy, eating insects, is a common dietary practice in many parts of the world that has been increasingly suggested as a sustainable meat substitute in many Western countries. Animal advocates view eating insects as yet another form of unnecessary exploitation of animals, and many Western consumers also oppose the practice, primarily because they see it as an unfamiliar and rather disgusting dietary choice. Recent studies have attempted to identify what types of consumers would be willing to eat insects as well as what tactics could be used to persuade people to adopt this practice.
This study, published in Food Research International, investigated factors that might influence consumers to buy and eat products containing mealworms. The authors recruited two groups of Dutch consumers who were either willing or unwilling to consume mealworm products and asked them to respond to a series of questions evaluating a product that would seem more appropriate for containing mealworms (meatballs) and a product that would seem less appropriate (a dairy drink). All participants responded to questions about their familiarity with and experience eating original products (i.e. meatballs and dairy drinks without mealworms) and the same products containing mealworms, interest and willingness to buy mealworm products, perceived appropriateness of using mealworms in meatballs and a dairy drink, and expected sensory experience of eating both products. Additionally, participants in the “willing tasters” group tried the original and mealworm products and responded to several of the same questions again based on their tasting experience.
Significant findings from the study include the following:
- Willing tasters, many of whom were recruited from a local university, were on average younger, comprised of more females, and more likely to have completed postsecondary education than unwilling tasters. This finding can be compared to that from a previous study indicating that group most likely to eat insects is primarily composed of younger “adventurous” males open to trying novel foods.
- Participants in both groups expected to have a higher sensory-liking of meatballs containing mealworms than a dairy drink containing mealworms. However, after willing tasters ate the products, they rated the sensory-liking of both products similarly, meaning that the drink was experienced as significantly better than expected and the meatballs as significantly worse.
- Participants were asked to describe their “ideal profiles” for original and mealworm products before and after tasting them. Overall the ideal profiles for mealworm products did not change significantly after tasting, but the dairy drink was perceived to be closer to the ideal and the meatball further from it.
- Willingness to buy both mealworm products decreased significantly after tasting and was higher for the meatball product. However, both before and after tasting, participants indicated a higher willingness to buy the meatball mealworm product than the dairy drink mealworm product, likely because the meatball product was seen as more appropriate for containing mealworms.
- In response to open-ended questions regarding interest in trying and regularly eating mealworm products, many unwilling tasters commented that eating insects did not appeal to them because they did not consider insects to be food. Willing tasters mentioned potential benefits of eating insects, such as insects being a sustainable food, but they also listed criteria that would need to be satisfied in order to for them to buy mealworm products, including tastiness, price, healthiness, product appeal, availability, and social implications, i.e. difficult dining with others who do not accept insects as food.
The overall results indicate that in order to be successful, mealworm products should be considered appropriate and also produce a positive sensory-liking experience. In the study, meatballs containing mealworms were considered appropriate but the sensory experience of eating them was rated as lower than expected, while the dairy drink was rated as better than expected but was not considered an appropriate product. As a result, after tasting the products, consumers indicated a decreased willingness to buy both of them.
The authors also state that within Western culture people still have significant reservations regarding regular consumption of insects. They note that for the unwilling tasters in their study, which represent the majority of people, “the product and sensory qualities seemed irrelevant as they did not want to eat insect-based foods, rejecting it on the basis that it is not food and is therefore disgusting to eat.” They ultimately recommend that “future research should not only focus on increasing initial motivations towards eating insects, but should also explore the barriers to buying and preparing insects for regular consumption.”
For advocates, the paper confirms what multiple others studies have shown: there continues to be widespread resistance to eating insects in Western culture. Additionally, it would seem that for familiar and popular products, mealworm substitutes do not hold up to originals in terms of sensory-experience as proponents of eating insects may try to claim. Advocates might also note that even people who express a willingness to try or buy mealworm products still express many reservations in terms of both practical aspects (e.g. price, availability) and more subjective aspects (e.g. product appeal, tastiness, social implications) of the products.