Understanding the taboos of eating insects as creepy crawly snacks hit supermarket shelves

Thursday, 29 November 2018

edible insects

How do you convince someone to put a cricket in their mouth? It sounds like a strange research topic, but it’s a question that two Oxford Brookes University academics have been researching for over a year and is increasingly relevant as we browse the supermarket aisles.

The subject of edible insects hit the headlines this week with Sainsbury’s now stocking Eat Grub-branded insects as a tasty on-the-go snack. And with insects increasingly being touted as an environmentally friendly food source, getting over ‘consumer disgust’ in Western audiences is likely to prove the biggest stumbling block.

We do see a lot of horror, especially when it comes to something big like a tarantula. What’s really interesting is that at events where we have families, we struggle to keep children’s hands off the bugs!

Professor Janine Dermody

Indroneel Chatterjee and Professor Janine Dermody have been conducting taste tests, experiments and observation studies to measure people’s reactions to eating insects.

Indroneel said of this research: “During our research, we have been investigating personal levels of food-related fear. Our tests have explored how individuals react to images and visuals and where this demonstrates fear or disgust. We are then able to look at how marketing materials can help to overcome this and help to create a greater acceptance of eating insects.”

Some of the Oxford Brookes research has involved taking various edible insects to events across the country and trying to get attendees to try them. So far the team have visited food and science events in London, Oxford and Nottingham.  One of the interesting things to come out of such experiments is that people’s disgust at the idea of eating insects seems to be something they develop as they get older.

Professor Dermody observed: “We do see a lot of horror, especially when it comes to something big like a tarantula.  Something small like mealworms, which people feed birds, gets a lot less resistance. What’s really interesting is that at events where we have families, we struggle to keep children’s hands off the bugs! Kids have no fear of them and will just eat them up. And even with adults, we’ve found that in the last twelve months there’s been a big difference in the number of people willing to try them.”

This upswing in adults willing to give insects may be good news for the environment, especially with the recent IPCC report suggesting we have limited time to start making big changes. And with the livestock industry accounting for up to 18% of greenhouse gas emissions, bodies like the Committee on Climate Change are urging companies to look for more sustainable sources. Insects could be the answer. Crickets, for example, offer more protein than beef; meal worms are richer in Omega 3 than salmon; while house flies have more Vitamin B2 than milk. They’re also faster to produce and require a fraction of the feed.

But, despite insects forming part of the diet for 2 billion people across the world, they are not yet widely consumed in the west. But this research suggests that, with time and exposure, we could be seeing a lot more insects on the menu.

Further findings on insect eating will be presented in 2019, combining the work from Indroneel’s doctoral thesis with a two-year public attitudes study led by Professor Dermody, who is looking at how we can save the planet by changing what we consume.

You should also look out for future public events with inventive insect experiments and even a cookbook featuring favourite insect recipes. There is even talk of a Bake Off-inspired event for Comic Relief!

More information on Oxford Brookes Business Schools’ research can be found at https://www.brookes.ac.uk/business/research/

(photo credit: Ian Wallman)