How to Get People to Try Insects for the First Time: A Tale of Birthday Bugs

It’s with a happy heart and an older soul that I write this particular post. It’s a post of gratitude to my friends and family who gathered around last weekend for some birthday festivities. I asked them not to come bearing gifts, but an open mind instead.

I asked them to try crickets with me for the first time.

The stage of the night was set: I asked the crew to assemble at a club / lounge in Santa Monica along the beach. As much as I’d love to name the club, I’m a little worried that word would get back to them that I snuck a huge bag of crickets (dried, dead, roasted) into their elegant venue. After a few drinks, a little dancing, and general camaraderie, I popped the question:

“Will you try a cricket? “

Now, some people may disagree with a few of the methods I experiment with to spread the word about entomophagy, or, the practice of eating insects. I believe there is a time and place for each method. Sometimes it’s better to ease an audience in with a “trojan horse” of sorts – a protein bar, a cookie, some pasta – making common and familiar foods out of cricket powder. Other times it’s important to build the narrative around the ingredient: you’re eating a bug. Bugs are edible. You can eat them. Ta da! There needs to be a degree of acceptance and comfort around this fact.

Consumer acceptance of insect-based foods

Recently, The Bug Chef (aka David George Gordon) sent me an article by Jonas House titled, “Consumer acceptance of insect-based foods in the Netherlands: Academic and commercial implications.” In the report, House outlines his empirical work questioning why despite a growing buzz around the use of insects as food, uptake of insect-based foods in Europe is low. His findings are intriguing: consumer’s motivations for trying insects for the first time are substantially different from factors (price, taste, availability, and cultural fit) which affect repeat consumption. His studies propose that a “reorientation of consumer acceptance research” is needed.

“Research should shift from attempts to forecast acceptance and engage with ‘actual’ examples of insect consumption; social, practical and contextual factors affecting food consumption should be emphasized [sic]; and – following work on the establishment of other novel foods – early adopters, rather than general populations, should receive greater analytic attention.”  – Jonas House

He further suggests that future research might benefit from shifting focus from levels of acceptance of insects as food in general populations to factors affecting uptake of insects as food in those who are already willing to eat them. He notes that ‘acceptance’ is not simply getting people to try insects once but rather to integrate them into their diets. House implies that we should focus on reaching individuals who have already expressed a willingness to try insects.

In this case, no ‘trojan horse’ is needed.

Photo: Anne Fishbein

Who is more likely to try insects as food? House sites several studies that identifies those more sympathetic to the use of insects as food as:

  • low in disgust sensitivity
  • low in food neophobia
  • higher in ‘sensation seeking’ traits
  • male
  • already familiar with eating insects
  • having a relatively high convenience orientation

Other factors that bumped up acceptance were:

  • expressed intent to reduce meat consumption
  • interest in environmental impact of diets
  • interest in health aspect of diets
  • curiosity

Most of the current literature presents contradictory findings on the optimal age for acceptance of insects as food. Most studies suggest that taste is the number one reason for or against acceptance of insects as food. More recent studies, however, have found that the cultural ‘appropriateness’ of insect-based foods appeared to have a greater influence on willingness to consume again than gender, neophobia, or even taste (Tan, Fischer, van Trijp, and Stieger (2016)). 

Are insects edible?

To eat, or not to eat… that is the question many people still have around insects. House suggests that perceptions around EDIBILITY is one of the biggest factors in acceptance of insects as food. “Edibility is co-produced by a range of actors in the agri-food network: it is not a fixed or inherent property, but rather something that is constructed and negotiated,” writes House.

Social, cultural, market, linguistic, and other forces work together to categorize items as “eat me” or “don’t eat me.” Let’s play a game. I’ll list pairs of similar things and you have to figure out what is edible and what is not: plants & vegetables, livestock & pets, snails & escargot… We have insects, but we might need a better classification for EDIBLE insects.

The majority of studies on consumer acceptable of insects as food focus largely on the individual: individual attitudes, preferences, or traits associated with one’s inclination to consume insects. Naturally there is a degree of variability within individuals on the degree of impact different cognitive factors – like disgust sensitivity or food neophobia – have on acceptance. These studies, House points out, place “the locus of consumer acceptance is nevertheless held to be individual choice at the point of consumption, emphasizing cognitive rather than contextual factors.” He continues, “This type of work holds that consumer attitudes or responses are remarkably durable and coherent across different social contexts, and downplays the extent to which food consumption – in the context of ‘real life’ mundane eating practices – is influenced by social and practical factors, as well as by products themselves.”

Instead, food consumption might be highly relational, as argued by Halkier and Jensen (2011). Food consumption can arise from the intersection of a variety of other practices such as work, school, care, socializing, and friend groups. A shift in emphasis away from individual attitudes and preferences towards a more contextually embedded, practical reality of food consumption may better illuminate reasons for consumer willingness to accept insects as edible. 

Or: social situations surrounding eating might be better indicators of a newbie’s willingness to try insects than her unique set of cognitive predispositions.

Photo: Anne Fishbein

Do we need to reduce stigma around eating insects?

Yes. But do we need to reduce a whole population’s stigma? The next big point House addresses is the assertion that “There is a need to eradicate or greatly reduce the Western-driven stigma over the use of insects as food” (Costa-Neto & Dunkel, 2016: 54). House writes, “Yet to conceive of an entire population – or even substantial parts of one – as the appropriate target for efforts to introduce a new food may be misguided.”

Instead, he suggests we do not emphasize reducing or changing negative attitudes in the general population. Instead, we work on increasing the positive and distinctive attributes of insect-based foods, such as their taste (Deroy et al., 2015), so that a relatively small but established number of repeat consumers can be attained.

Back to the birthday bugs…

Let’s come full circle. I wanted my friends to try bugs for my birthday. I used a social situation to compel people to try insects for the first time and it worked. I know this is a vast oversimplification of House’s work and my birthday fun is not meant to be a perversion of his suggestions. Instead, I had fun with a little experiment that I called, “Let’s bring a bag of crickets into a fancy Santa Monica lounge and see what happens.” And I was pleasantly surprised. Not only did my friends try the insects, but several strangers, bartenders, and even the BOUNCERS opened up for a new food experience.

Ideally, I would have served them something a bit more delicious than a cricket. BUT a new group of individuals learned, “Oh hey – bugs are edible too!” And that’s the goal here at Bugible 🙂

So, dear friends, thank you for making my birthday bug-tastic. Check out this cute collage below:

Starting from top left: Daniel, Chaka, Cam, Blake, Erin, Dillon, Eric, Alec, Jacob, Hunter, Noah, Jordan, Casper, David, Jessica, Kasey, Bartender (thanks!), Francisco.

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