Salted ants. Ground crickets. Why you should try edible insects.
By Carolyn Beans
November 27, 2022 at 7:02 a.m. EST
On a clear August morning in southeastern Pennsylvania, more than a dozen adults and children stood in a park pavilion, listening to mealworms sizzling in a hot pan. They were learning about entomophagy — the human consumption of insects — from Lisa Sanchez, a naturalist with the Lancaster County Department of Parks and Recreation, who has taught the practice for 25 years.
Suddenly, one mealworm sputtered out of the pan. Six-year-old Adaline Welk — without prompting — popped it into her mouth. The crowd cheered for the newly minted entomophagist. “It’s not that bad!” she exclaimed. “It kind of tastes like kettle corn!”
Sanchez encourages people to eat insects, in part, to lighten environmental footprints. Farmed insects produce far less greenhouse gas and require much less land and water than conventional livestock. Insects also generate more biomass with less input. Crickets, for example, are 12 times more efficient than cows at converting feed into edible weight.
Already, 2 billion people eat insects, according to one estimate — primarily in parts of Africa, Latin America and Asia. The practice dates back millennia. “I always thought, even back in the ’90s, someday, maybe, [Americans] will do this,” Sanchez says.
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The coming years may prove her right. The edible insect industry is ramping up — one report predicts the market will reach $9.6 billion by 2030. Consumers can already find foods like salted ants on Amazon and cricket powder protein bars in Swiss grocery stores. Recent years have seen numerous media stories extolling the virtues of insect-eating.
But before insects can become common fare, more diners must be convinced that six-legged critters are, in fact, food. Through tasting experiments, surveys and educational demos, researchers, entrepreneurs and educators are delving into consumers’ psychology and finding that resistance to insect-eating can be strong.
“Getting over the initial disgust of the idea of eating something that is often thought of as dirty and unclean is a big barrier,” says Matthew Ruby, a lecturer in psychology at La Trobe University in Albury-Wodonga, Australia who has studied this topic.
But researchers are discovering that disgust wanes once people actually taste insects. In a 2022 Spanish study, for example, volunteers felt more positively about pizza topped with mealworms after tasting it. How, then, to get people to take that first bite?
“We repeatedly find that if you don’t see the insects, people are much more open to eating” them, says Ruby. Through an online questionnaire of 177 American adults, his team found that, on average, individuals were comfortable with the idea of eating cookies containing up to about 30 percent ground black soldier fly larvae added as a flour.
“Most people don’t want to eat a cow that looks like a cow,” says Charles Wilson, founder of Cricket Flours based in Portland, Ore. Cricket Flours sells whole insects for snacking, but also brownie mix enriched with cricket powder (ground cricket), as well as pure cricket powder that customers can discretely incorporate into baked goods or protein shakes.
The prominence of insects on packaging can also influence consumers, says Dror Tamir, co-founder and CEO of Hargol FoodTech in Israel. “We did a lot of trials working with consumers to have their feedback on how much we should emphasize the grasshoppers,” he says. “Having the grasshoppers in front of the package is not a good thing for us.”
Hargol, established in 2016, is the first company to raise a species of locust at commercial scale. Its products are primarily sold to other food producers. But it also sells finished products to consumers online through its sub-brand, Biblical Protein. Hargol’s chocolate protein shake mix pictures a chocolaty liquid pouring into a glass — no wings, legs, or antennae in sight.
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Once people do try ground insects, they’re often ready to move on to the whole bug, says Joseph Yoon, founder of Brooklyn Bugs, an organization dedicated to increasing appreciation for edible insects. Formerly a private chef, Yoon now conducts insect cooking demonstrations and tastings at schools, universities and museums. He might offer novices gougeres (French cheese puffs) made with cricket powder. “They are usually almost immediately ready to see [the insect],” says Yoon. “They’re like, ‘I ate that cricket gougeres. That was easy. I could eat that all day. All right, give me something else.’”
But before consumers feel compelled to grab a pack of dried crickets, companies will have to lure them in with advertisements. “Telling people that they should eat more insects because it’s good for them and/or good for the planet doesn’t seem to have much effect on behavior,” says experimental psychologist and gastrophysicist Charles Spence of the University of Oxford in England.
In a 2022 study, his team instead tested a tried-and-true marketing strategy: the celebrity endorsement. Researchers presented fictional ads for insect-based foods to more than 1,000 people based in the United States. Volunteers who saw ads picturing athletes such as Serena Williams and Roger Federer or actors such as Ryan Reynolds and Angelina Jolie said they were more willing to try the product than those who saw ads without celebrities.
The findings suggest that marketers may not need to reinvent advertising to sell insects, says Spence.
‘Taste is king’
Regardless, taste impacts whether someone will come back for more. Yoon teaches people how to work insects into their recipes in appealing ways. For example, adding cricket powder to marinara sauce, he says, adds not only nutrition but umami. “Taste is king,” Tamir says. Grasshoppers, he says, have “umami flavors — mainly mushrooms, pecans, coffee and chocolate. They enhance meaty flavors.”
Hargol is working with processed meat producers in the United States, Canada and Asia to develop products like burgers, meatballs and sausage that will contain chicken, beef or other protein sources combined with ground grasshopper.
Pointing to a picture of a chicken and grasshopper patty prototype, Tamir outlines Hargol’s selling points: It tastes better than other burgers because of this unique ingredient (which he leaves unnamed). “And then we can explain, it is better for the environment, it is better for your health.”
Creating a new norm
Watching others enjoy insects may also help break down barriers. In Sanchez’s entomophagy classes, she discusses how she enjoys eating insects herself. She never forces anyone to try insects, though most, she says, do.
Back at the pavilion in Lancaster County, after Welk popped that cooked mealworm into her mouth, many others followed suit. Welk’s 8-year-old sister, Leona, wasn’t so sure. They taste better than sprinkles, Sanchez assured her.
Leona watched as family members tried the insects. The program was about to wrap up when she finally marched over to the demo table, reached for a mealworm, and ate it. “It didn’t taste like anything,” she shrugged. “I’m still not putting them on my ice cream.”
A longer version of this article originally appeared in the Front Matter section of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.