Is it disgusting to eat insects?

ant_disgusted.pngYour first instinct to the whole thing might well be yuck. If you’ve heard of edible insects before, it’s probably from the occasional article documenting the latest ‘bizarre’ trend in high-end London restaurants, accompanied by a picture of a fried grasshopper. Or footage of celebrities crying over a half-consumed worm in the jungle.

Think about how honey is made. Literally the product of thousands of bees regurgitating sticky fluid.

It’s something that, in the west, just seems miles outwith our comfort zone. But it doesn’t have to be. The one thing that most effectively helps people get over the ‘creepy crawly factor’ is discovering that insects can actually be delicious.

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Photo: Nordic Food Lab, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

Toddlers are often quite happy eating insects – much to the horror of adults. And this shows that the ‘yuck’ reaction is something we learn. Growing up in a culture in which a creepy-crawly is the very last thing we want near our food is going to make you react pretty strongly to the idea of actually eating them. Usually insects are something we go to great lengths to remove – from our homes, our food, everywhere – with huge effort. We associate them with filth, disease, and danger.

So it’s hard to just suddenly transcend all that learned horror and consider putting them in our mouths, unless you’re a particularly ‘adventurous’ type. Some people might gag or feel sick just at the thought of eating bugs, in particular ‘scary’ ones like spiders. It might just ‘feel wrong’.

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Photo: Nordic Food Lab, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

If this sounds like you, but you don’t want to miss out, some people recommend starting with something that doesn’t look like an insect. More and more protein bars are are made with cricket flour because of its very high protein content. GMO-free, gluten-free, and with low environmental impact, it seems to tick all the boxes. Insect flour is pretty versatile too; it is now used to make pasta as well.

Toddlers are often quite happy eating insects – much to the horror of adults.

Then there are larvae and eggs – far less intimidating than the full-on hairy-legged tarantula or something bristling with antennae. We eat these kind of things in lots of forms from different animals. Caviar, anyone? It’s really about perception and cultural norms.

Think about how honey is made. It's literally the product of hundreds of thousands of bees regurgitating sticky fluid. But few people find honey disgusting! Or consider the appearance of a prawn. Or a lobster. Are they perhaps a bit similar to some land-based things that we would call ‘insects’ but elsewhere, and at other times in human history, were also ‘food’?

Nothing special about insects – most animal products are 'disgusting'

Nothing special about insects – most animal products are 'disgusting'

Find a meat-eater near you. Right now. Ask them to count on their fingers the number of different animals they actually eat. Do they run out?

Every now and then you’re presented with a fact that really surprises you, really shifts your perspective. Joining in on an Entocall the other day (an online conference to discuss edible insects), I was taken aback by psychology professor Paul Rozin’s point that the animals we actually consider ‘edible’ are a tiny fraction of what’s out there.

You might consider this a good thing, especially if you’re vegetarian, but it raises the interesting point: why do we label anything other than chicken breast and beef steak as ‘disgusting’?

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Mealworms? Disgusting! – an international sample from Prague

Mealworms? Disgusting! – an international sample from Prague

When I tried my first mealworm at a food festival in Prague, I was hooked. Many of my friends, however, turned up their noses and had strong negative reactions – despite knowing little about the topic. Fascinated by their adamant attitudes, I went on a mission to find out why exactly my friends from around the globe find the concept of eating insects so disgusting.

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What can trump disgust?

What can trump disgust? Cash? Or the fear of missing out?

Eating insects is still unusual in most western countries. It provokes disgust and horror, which is deeply felt and can be hard to overcome. But when people do take the plunge, they tend to remark that they quickly forgot what the fuss was about.

As the interest in entomophagy grows, a lot of stakeholders – from nutritionists to the early entrepreneurs – will be looking for that magic persuasive factor. What does it take to get people to eat an insect?

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