Bread and Butter and … Bugs?

Right after celebrating the start of 2019, my family gathers around the dinner table to sample a surprising foodstuff: cricket chips. My mom reluctantly takes one. My dad takes one, then a few more. He proclaims them worse than tortilla chips but still worth eating. My brother refuses my offer and trumpets his disgust at the mere idea. Meanwhile, I chomp away at the remaining chips, having looked forward to this admittedly unusual snack for a while.

Cricket chips, disgusting or not, are one of the many insect products that have recently begun to feature on grocery shelves and restaurant tables. As the industry grows, consumers are sampling a range of bugs, from grasshopper tacos to cricket protein bars. The BBC listed insects as one of their top 10 food trends of 2017, and recent coverage in prominent newspapers indicates that this popularity is going nowhere. But while innovative bug foodstuffs are certainly showing up in restaurants and stores alike, several cultural barriers continue to impede the widespread adoption of bugs in American cuisine. Nonetheless, savvy marketing techniques may be able to overcome some of these barriers.

Insects Don’t Bug Them

Although Native Americans across the United States have long incorporated insects into their diets, entomophagy — the practice of eating insects — remained a “cultist hobby” until 2013, when a report from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization promoting entomophagy’s environmental benefits sparked greater interest in the subject. Since then, its popularity has grown as shows like Bizarre Foods and celebrity chefs have put bugs in the spotlight.

Despite its recent trendiness in the West, entomophagy is far from new. Indeed, non-Western cuisines have included insects for centuries, and more than 2 billion people eat insects on a regular basis. Aly Moore, the founder of bug blog Bugible and event site EatBugsEvents, got hooked on eating insects after trying chapulines (dried and roasted grasshoppers) in Mexico. Meanwhile, Daniella Martin surveyed a cross-cultural range of edible insects in her book Edible, sampling silkworm pupae in Japan and South Korea, caterpillar tamales in Mexico, and ant egg omelets and sago palm grubs in Thailand. Many of these foreign cultures are hardly squeamish about eating bugs: Eating insects is standard, forming an integral part of many cuisines whether as appetizers, entrees, or snacks.

Butterflies (and Other Insects) in Our Stomachs

Increasingly, European and American celebrity chefs have begun to adopt insect-based dishes from these other cultures. Chapulines have found themselves on the menus of several trendy restaurants (and Seattle’s baseball field, interestingly). Furthermore, ants frequently appear on the menu of Copenhagen’s Noma — voted the world’s best restaurant multiple times — and Rene Redzepi, Noma’s chef, has promoted entomophagy tirelessly. Meanwhile, Sang Hoon Degeimbre of Belgium surprised (and delighted) foodies by disguising mealworms as lamb chops, and chefs at Detroit Ento hosted a five-course dinner in which each course featured bugs.

For those unable to partake in five-star dining, people like Moore have hosted insect cooking demonstrations all over the United States; Moore even hosts events pairing bugs and wine. “What started as a gimmick turned into an exploration of flavor profiles … A little liquid courage goes a long way” in getting over people’s fear of insects, she told the HPR.

Several insect cookbooks have been published, allowing consumers to make everyday dishes with a twist. David Gordon’s 1998 Eat-a-Bug Cookbook, widely regarded as the seminal insect cookbook, features recipes such as orzo with cricket nymphs. Arnold van Huis’ The Insect Cookbook: Food for a Sustainable Planet mixes recipes such as mealworm minestrone, grasshopper jambalaya, and insect burgers in with interviews with trendsetters like Redzepi and former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan to help normalize and contextualize insect eating.

But consumers do not have to cook insects themselves to enjoy them at home. Realizing that crickets can serve as a non-meat protein source, companies such as Chapul have utilized cricket flour to make energy bars and protein powders; another brand, Chirps Chips, uses cricket powder in its take on the tortilla chip. For those unable to stomach even a cricket bar, Paradox Protein makes cricket pills, and touts their product’s vitamins and amino acids. On the other hand, more adventurous eaters can try Entomo Farms’ roasted crickets and mealworms — like roasted and salted nuts, but with bugs.

Bug Off!

Despite the prevalence of insects in other cuisines and their emergence in Western diets, several major barriers to the widespread Western adoption of insect food remain. First of all, Europe has never had an insect-eating tradition, thanks to geography and the Ice Ages, which hindered the development of edible bug species. “If you look at the tropics, insects are bigger. They’re more abundant, and available the whole year. In the Western world, it’s very difficult to collect insects to have a meal,” Arnold van Huis, a professor of entomology at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, told the HPR. Because of this, entomophagy never became normal to Westerners, and since people tend to be relatively conservative in their food choices, they have shied away from bugs.

Another barrier lies in entomophagy’s association with the ‘other.’ This too has historical roots: Christian missionaries in Africa associated entomophagy with “heathen” native cultures, while white Americans cited entomophagy as evidence of Native Americans’ inferiority and largely stamped out the practice. While this distinctly racist aversion to entomophagy has faded, the association with the ‘other’ continues. In an interview with the HPR, Eat-a-Bug Cookbook author David Gordon described a prevalent misconception among Americans — that other cultures that eat insects only do so because “they’re so starving they’ll eat anything.” This belief that insects are “a poor man’s diet,” as van Huis put it, means that many Americans reject entomophagy out of hand, viewing themselves as ‘above’ such a practice.

But above all, the ‘ick factor’ is the hardest barrier to overcome. Western cultures have always viewed insects with disgust. Insects are the pests that destroy crops and houses, the vectors that bring infectious diseases, and the nuisances that bother us on a daily basis. Some insects, particularly cockroaches, even activate “hardwired disgust reflexes.” “I think it’s really deep in our psyche, in the Western world, that bugs are gross, and until we get over that, it’s a real uphill struggle,” Gordon told the HPR.

Bug-Eyed (at the Benefits)

As it turns out, entomophagy presents manifold environmental and nutritional benefits, especially when compared to eating meat. Van Huis summarized the current state of research on the environmental impact of insects: “In terms of land use, in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, in terms of water use, insects are performing much better than common production animals.” In terms of nutrition, insects provide micronutrients such as iron and zinc, high levels of protein, and polyunsaturated fats, widely considered good fats; they can also complement diets poor in essential amino acids.

According to Edible, producing one pound of beef requires 10 pounds of feed, 1,000 gallons of water, and 200 square feet of pasture. In contrast, producing one pound of insects only requires two pounds of feed, one gallon of water, and two cubic feet of land space. In a world facing increasing land and water shortages (as well as a growing number of mouths to feed), this difference is crucial. Insects are much more efficient at converting food to feed because they do not spend as much energy maintaining homeostasis, and do not entail the amount of waste associated with traditional meat animals.

Moreover, the animal agriculture industry creates almost 18 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. Mealworms and crickets produce 100 times less greenhouse gas emissions than cattle, so replacing acreage devoted to cows, pigs, and chickens with insect agriculture could massively reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Insects also reproduce extremely rapidly and tolerate cramped quarters, allowing them to produce more food in less space and time and making them perfect for a growing (and hungry) planet.

Bug Appetit!

To convince a skittish public to take edible insects seriously, bug proponents — a mix of sustainability advocates and chefs — have concentrated on the content, the presentation, and the audience of their messages. On the content side, bug proponents recognize that not everyone will like bugs, and have adapted their strategy to emphasize the adventuresome aspects of entomophagy. “We’re trying to rebrand [the ick factor] to the wow factor, in a similar way to a roller coaster. You’re terrified of it, and it’s scary, but after you do it, it’s super fun and really cool,” Moore told the HPR.

Another prong of this marketing revolves around promoting the taste and normalcy of insects. Indeed, a recent study concluded that focusing on insects’ taste and their similarity to products already on the market worked much more effectively than focusing on just the environmental and nutritional benefits of insects. Moore emphasized the need to inform consumers of analogues in their regular diets — crickets, for instance, taste like cashews or pine nuts. “A lot of those comparisons to normal, everyday foods are super helpful because people can suddenly relate that to something they already know and trust, and it becomes a lot less scary,” she explained.

Disguising insects in bars or chips can also help to remove people’s negative predispositions to insects. Seeing whole insects often triggers the ick factor, Gordon noted: “We’re not used to seeing whole anything. If you’re buying chicken, you’re buying it in the little shrink-wrapped container, already cut up.” Indeed, tempura-battered mealworms are among the most popular insects at Gordon’s demonstrations, precisely because the mealworms are invisible.

As for who will present this message of scary-yet-adventurous cuisine, Gordon, Moore, and van Huis all suggested working with celebrities to promote edible insects. Moore has worked with YouTube and social media “influencers” in order to reach out to their “young and open-minded” audiences, while Gordon argued that if people like Brad Pitt publicized bugs, people would start eating them due to the “trickle-down effect.” Interestingly enough, Pitt’s former wife, Angelina Jolie, beat him to the punch, enjoying a bug feast in Cambodia. Other celebrities like Salma Hayek and Nicole Kidman have also tried bug-based foods, but it is unclear whether this is a cause or an effect of the trend.

In terms of audience, all three advised targeting children. Van Huis succinctly told the HPR that kids “aren’t biased yet, so they have no problems in eating insects.” Moore worked with the Girl Scouts to develop an edible insect badge, and kids have enthusiastically started to eat bugs in response to her and Gordon’s demonstrations.

Interestingly enough, the rise of sushi provides interesting lessons for bug promoters. Initially, Americans viewed sushi as disgusting: They were averse to eating raw fish and perceived the food as foreign. However, an influential report urging increased consumption of fish, a new interest in Japanese culture sparked by the TV miniseries Shogun, and the inside-out roll (with the “disgusting” aspects now hidden on the inside) combined to rebrand and popularize sushi. Thanks to the 2013 U.N. report and the growing prevalence of dishes that disguise their insect ingredients, bugs look poised to be the next sushi.

The impending rise of bugs evokes the past rise of lobsters, too. American easterners once viewed lobsters as a “poor man’s food” and even served them to prisoners. With the advent of the railroad, savvy railroaders sold lobsters as an exotic, luxury good to unsuspecting midwesterners, who came to savor the taste of this delicious crustacean. Soon, the cultural elite began to take up lobsters, cementing their place as a popular luxury item. Something similar could happen with bugs if promoters sell bug dishes with exotic names and let their flavors speak for themselves.

A Bug in Every Pot?

Overall, Americans’ reluctance to eat insects reflects a general conservatism in food, a desire to stick with the known and traditional. However, the rises of lobster and sushi suggest that entomophagy may be close to a tipping point, where Americans can overcome the ick factor and adopt insects as a regular part of their diet. Furthermore, kids’ increasing exposure to bugs will create a generation of Americans accustomed to the idea of eating bugs; if this generation does not adopt entomophagy in large numbers, the next one likely will.

Meat remains entrenched in the American culture, so it is unlikely that insects will replace it altogether. However, given the rising prominence of veganism and vegetarianism in American food culture, insects can provide the country with another alternative to meat, one that will allow Americans to maintain their protein-rich diets while still benefiting the environment. Most likely, insects will complement meat: Some dishes will continue to use meat, others will use insects as a substitute, and still others will create a whole new niche of bug-based dishes. Since insects represent a massive improvement in terms of environmental impact, any shift from meat to insects will certainly end up helping the environment.

Moore argues that entomophagy is representative of a broader trend, one that emphasizes health and sustainability: “People are starting to really think more critically about how what they eat impacts their body and the environment, and I think that narrative is just going to increase.” Even though some people — like my brother — may still reject them, bugs appear ready to join that narrative and enter American households.

Image Credit: Flickr/shankar s.

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