Some insects are more equal

Dutch consumers quickly set apart the edible insects from the rest

Over the last few years the introduction in Europe of entomophagy, or the eating of insects, has received a lot of attention. Much of this work shows that people in Europe tend to be disgusted or afraid of the novelty of eating insects.

In a recent paper in British Food journal we show that simply talking about eating insects is not enough. If we want to make progress we should focus on the insects we are actually going to eat.

This idea was inspired by an earlier study where we went to a country where insects are eaten. In that country, consumer often talk about edible species without thinking about those as insect. Insects are the zooming, stinging pests, not food.

That is not so different how in Europe we look at meat. We do eat pigs, cattle and sheep. But we do not talk about these as mammals, at least not when thinking about eating them. Nor do we eat all mammals. In Europe we generally do not eat dogs and cats. At some stage non-food mammals stop being a source of meat in the minds of consumers as we found in another study.

So is the same going on for Dutch consumers when looking at eating insects?

This question brought us to ask different Dutch consumers how much the liked the idea of eating insects. We asked a group of 63 consumers who had already tried to eat insects; although almost all only tried once or a few times. We asked another group of 77 consumer who had never tried eating insects. All of them were asked to rate how willing they would be to eat 17 different insects.

The outcomes of this study were recently published in British Food Journal and confirmed a lot of things we expected based on other research.

  • People who had not tried eating insects, liked the idea less than those who had tried eating insects before.
  • Specific insects were liked less than others. Unsurprisingly cockroaches and wasps ranked lowest for all participants.
  • Some insects were like more. Especially those insects that are often used in tastings: Mealworms, crickets and grasshoppers.

This all seems hardly surprising.

But what we did find is that the consumers who had tasted insects before rated mealworms cricket and grasshoppers as a separate group of insects. These insects stood apart as they were the only once positively rated. Their ratings were in fact (significantly) more positive than that of any other insect. And we did not find this for consumers who had not tasted insects before.

This shows that even people with limited experience in eating insects are starting to set the edible ones apart. Similar as we do for meat, and similar as consumers from insect eating cultures have done for ages.

This shows two things. Theoretically it shows that consumers are readily subcategorising the edible insects into a subgroup. Practically this means we should probably stop talking about eating insects. Talking about eating insects will only remind people of the large category with all the cockroaches and wasps in there. That way people may never come to terms with eating insects. The way to support insect eating may be in consistently using a name for the subgroup, for example “edible insects”. Or perhaps even better, we might talk about a specific insect species.

Cricket critter anyone?

The paper is freely available to everyone. The full reference is Fischer, A. R. H., & Steenbekkers, L. P. A. (2018). All insects are equal, but some insects are more equal than others. British Food Journal, 120(4), 852-863

The article is published Open Access – under the Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY 4.0) licence. This means that anyone can freely access, reproduce, distribute, translate and create derivative works of this article (for both commercial and non-commercial purposes) – as long as you fully attribute the original publication and authors.

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Arnout Fischer

About Arnout Fischer

Arnout Fischer is associate professor in the Marketing and Consumer Behaviour group. He studies consumer response to new technologies in food products and production. He thinks that consumer response to food innovation can only be understood if we realise that food is very special. Food is that special because all consumers have very much social and cultural knowledge what food should (or should not) be; and food consumption is very emotional.

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