Edible Insects: The ‘How to’ of marketing grubs

When it comes to food trends, a huge amount can change in a year. In late 2013, I wrote a blog outlining my thoughts on entomophagy, questioning how insects can be incorporated into Western diets in a way that supports rather than undermines the traditional landscapes knowledge networks and food cultures that entomophagy emerged from in the first place (namely Asia, Africa and parts of Central and South America).

Some of this hesitancy to see entomophagy as a panacea is still lingering in my mind, however it is absolutely startling to see how – in the space of just over a year – eating insects has gone from a predominantly rhetorical focus of UN FAO reports to one of the up and coming food trends in the West.

I thought I should do some research into how grubs have, and continue to be, marketed in the West. The first step is…

Removing the taboo

In January, I wrote an article for the Sustainable Food Trust on revolting food traditions. Emotions play a key role in what we eat, with revulsion or disgust often leading to avoidance of certain foods. However, behind the culinary traditions that are deemed revolting is a story involving rich heritage, ecology and tradition. Preserving and even promoting the diversity of these ‘revolting’ foods and their stories is of paramount importance, and eating insects is one example of this. 

Particularly in the civil society and research world, these stories are increasingly being documented. For example, the University of Wageningen, Noma’s Nordic Food Lab and numerous other research institutes are doing extensive research on edible insects from their farming to their consumption. Diverse case studies from around the world are being collected and questions on health and safety, land use change and utilising insects as a source of animal feed are all being posed.

Number edible insects by country
Source: whyfiles.org

Insects as a health food

Another key area of research is consumer attitude towards grubs and how to overcome any barrier towards adoption of entomophagy in the West. One successful way is to use pre-existing values associated with health and well-being.

For example, insects are high in protein and low in fat. As UN FAO report states:

Insects have a high food conversion rate. e.g. crickets need six times less feed than cattle, four times less than sheep, twice less than pigs and broiler chickens to produce the same amount of protein”.

This is combined with a high level of sustainability in production, increasing the health of our ecosystem services too. For example, farming insects has a dramatically lower impact on carbon footprints, land and water use compared to other protein sources such as livestock. On the topic of feed, insects can also be used as an energy-rich animal feed, reducing the demand for corn and soy as human-edible proteins fed to livestock.

Infographic beef vs grasshopper
Source: foodrepublic.com

Because of this, the benefits of eating insects has been marketed in line with the growing debate on the role of meat in sustainable, healthy diets. Western governments and policy-makers are encouraging consumers to reduce their intake of grain-fed red meats. Not only is this better for our bodies, mitigating the prevalence of obesity and diet-related disease, but also for our environments and climate.

Promoting a ‘global’ diet

Another factor that has helped promote entomophagy is marketing it as a global experience. It’s like going to the local restaurant and ordering an Indian or Chinese takeaway, but just a whole lot more exciting.

For example, Thailand Unique is just one online store where you can buy a range of products – including scorpion vodka and canned bugs – that are made from insects caught by ‘expert hunters’ or reared on insect farms around the world. Incorporating bugs with alcohol seems to be a trend in itself: innovative wine merchant Laithwaites have even created an edible insect and matching wine guide, suggesting exotic combinations such as zebra tarantula with Chardonnay and sago worms with Shiraz.

My only hesitation is that this has to be a long-term diet shift, complementing and even catalysing a sustained shift in consumer mindsets. In other words, eating insects cannot be simply a quirky short-term fad if it really wants to live up to it being a part of fixing our broken food and agricultural system. Thankfully, this is being recognised. Commenting on Wahaca’s recent incorporation of grasshoppers into the Mexican-themed menu:

“Rather than having the insects eaten by diners as a dare or as a gimmick amongst the tacos or quesadillas, marketing manager Oli Ingham said they wanted to raise the issue of sustainability in food production” Guardian article (2015)

Wahaca grasshopper menu
Wahaca’s grasshopper dips
Source: wahaca.co.uk

Like with hiding vegetables in children’s meals, restaurants and chefs are gradually incorporating insects into common recipes (not just vodka and confectionary…): using grasshopper flour rather than wheat to make bread, bug burgers and burritosmuffins from crickets… As Adam Holcroft, the owner of the UK’s first ever insect restaurant states: this helps to normalise insects as a part of our everyday diet. Until we’re not disgusted by the sight of a deep-fried tarantula or ant egg soup – two delicacies of South-East Asia – this incremental removal of taboo and increase in status is at least a step in the right direction.

On this optimistic note, I am intent to combine all this preaching with some practice of my own… So, next blog will be all about my own culinary exploration of insects, ranging from wasps to hornet wine.

Until next time…!
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