Breaking the Bug Taboo

Every culture has those certain foods that are just not “normal” in other parts of the world. Balut from the Philippines is a fertilised duck egg boiled in its shell, and hákarl from Icelandis dried rotten shark meat. In the West, most of us absolutely love cheese, but in many parts of Asia the idea of eating fermented milk is pretty disgusting. These cultural taboos exist simply because the foods they represent are just not part of our cultural contexts.

But cultural preferences do change and taboos do fade…

The most famous examples in the West are lobsters and sushi. Lobsters were once considered food only for the poorest members of society and it wasn’t until themid-19th century when East-coast Americans started to overcome that taboo, thanks to the re-marketing of canned lobsters as convenience food for the masses and fresh lobster as a delicacy for early New England tourists.

Sushi, on the other hand, has been eaten in Japan for thousands of years, but only began to take off in the US in the 70’s. The more traditional sushi and maki rolls proved to be a little too adventurous for people at the time, so the sushi chef at Tokyo Kaitan restaurant in LA came up with the California roll. This taboo-busting change was essentially as simple as moving the seaweed to the inside of the rice roll so it was no longer visible. Sushi restaurants are now found throughout the developed world, thanks to this small act of re-marketing that overcame a nonsensical cultural aversion.

So what’s the next Western food taboo to break?

It’s becoming increasingly obvious that the edible insects industry is taking off in the West. The Netherlands are leading the way in entomophagy, the practice of eating insects, and the US is not all that far behind with several start-ups taking the initiative and driving the demand. The problem now is not whether the demand is there, but it’s how to efficiently and economically scale up insect farming to actually meet the growing demand.

In the UK, our entomophagy industry is a little behind that of our Dutch and American counterparts, but it IS growing and big things are on the horizon for our stakeholders. Media coverage of the global edible insect hype is polarising public opinion, strengthening the sceptics’ aversion to insects, but bolstering the more adventurous eaters’ taste for bugs. More importantly, however, those of us that lie somewhere in that middle ground are the ones that will be targeted with exciting new ways of presenting insect-based foods.

Last year, Canadean, a leading international market research company, conducted a survey of UK consumer attitudes towards edible insects, and they have been kind enough to provide us with their raw dataset. Their study sampled 2,000 UK consumers from across the country, recording how things like their general food choices and their interest in trying edible insect products relate to where in the UK they are from, their age group, and their socio-economic backgrounds.

Below are a few of their findings, giving you a taste of how the UK currently (2014) perceives edible insects. But before their data, we’ve thrown in some reasons why edible insects are a good idea, making comparisons with more traditional forms of meat such as beef, our ecologically most destructive food offender.

So without further ado, here’s our infographic, “Breaking the Bug Taboo”.

Breaking the Bug Taboo Infographic

The survey data on willingness to try processed insect products was based on providing consumers with minimal information on the nature of those products, whereas the question on whether they would try insect-based protein bars was preceded with contextual information. This included introducing some of the nutritional benefits of edible insects and examples of current protein bar flavours on the market, such as those offered by Chapul. This highlights the difference in consumer attitudes when theyare provided with supplementary information on the benefits of certain food products, and shows how clever (but not deceptive) marketing really can make all the difference.

As you can see from the data, 25-34 year olds from London, the West Midlands and Scotland were the demographics most willing to try processed insect products, even when given little information about them beforehand. Strangely though, that age group was the least open to trying insect-based protein bars. However, since Adam and I both hail from Birmingham, it’s nice to see that 78% of West Midlanders sampled would be willing to try them!

To quote Catherine O’Connor, a senior analyst at Canadean:

Processed insects will be an easier sell than products where consumers can see the insects in front of them. To get past the disgust barrier, insect-derived foods must have a strong visual appeal and not be recognisably bug-based.

For Canadean’s original article highlighting their findings, click here.