How to Keep People From Bugging Out About Eating Insects

It’s all about the marketing.
(Photo: John Tlumacki/'The Boston Globe' via Getty Images)
Jul 3, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Richard Conniff is the author of House of Lost Worlds: Dinosaurs, Dynasties, and the Story of Life on Earth and other books.

Years ago in a South American rainforest, the researcher I was visiting announced with something like joy that he had just found some palm beetle grubs. They were fat, yellow, and the length of my fingers, and when we sautéed them with garlic in a frying pan, the skins took on a lovely al dente chewiness around the creamy interiors. They were delicious—and I ate just one.

Would they have gone down smoother if the researcher had called them “rainforest baked brie” instead, or maybe “Amazon croquetas”? That’s one idea put forward by Matan Shelomi, an American entomologist at the Max Planck Institute of Chemical Ecology, in a new article titled “Why We Still Don’t Eat Insects.” Writing in the journal Trends in Food Science & Technology, Shelomi chronicles 130 years of clumsy marketing and entomological un-trendiness, ever since an eccentric British author named Vincent Holt first introduced nose-wrinkling Western society to what’s come to be termed “entomophagy” in his 1885 book Why Not Eat Insects?

Shelomi points out that the word entomophagy itself is a lousy place to begin. It’s like saying “decapophagy” (a made-up word) when you mean “Let’s go eat some crab rolls.” Better even to avoid the word “insects,” he suggests. Cicadas, for instance, might be “more easily marketed with clever euphemisms like ‘land shrimp’ or ‘tree lobster.’ ”

A larger problem, Shelomi writes, is that people have always promoted eating insects for ideological reasons. “Much of the drive for entomophagy is based on the idea that producing insects requires fewer resources (land area, labor, water, etc.) than producing meat, while still providing the same nutrition,” he writes. But that argument doesn’t even stand up on its own terms, because a vegetarian or vegan diet would be even greener (and with a lower yuck factor). “Ecological footprint” is a worthy idea. But factors like taste, convenience, and status are more likely to motivate consumers to drop a product into their shopping cart.

And entomologists are frequently clueless about status. It’s why they eagerly show up to espouse insect-eating on radio shows with themes like “people with bizarre eating habits” or on Fear Factor-style reality shows that emphasize the grossness of eating raw insects. They “get played for a sideshow,” says Shelomi, and that is seldom a path to marketing glory.

Insect fairs and other events where people can taste insect-based food generally offer a more positive experience, and they now take place on an almost weekly basis somewhere in the United States. But they generally proceed on the assumption that giving people the chance to try insects just once will lead them to start eating insects more regularly. In reality, that first chance is typically the last, because “convenient, inexpensive sources of insects are simply not available in the West.”

If you really want people to start eating insects, says Shelomi, you should start by persuading supermarkets to put “bags of cricket meal, bottles of termite oil, or loaves of insect flour bread” on their shelves, with recipes, “making them available for consumers to try on their own time in their own homes on their own terms.” Instead of pushing insects as alternatives to meat, a failed strategy, promoters should position them as alternatives to nuts, which they already resemble “in their texture, macronutrient content, and even flavor.”

It may be hard to imagine the typical consumer livening up salads or baked goods with a sprinkling of insects or putting out fried insects instead of cocktail nuts at a party. But Shelomi is already thinking about product placement. He envisions upper-class characters in British sitcoms “casually munching on cricket chips” or a Hollywood romantic drama taking place during an insect harvesting party. (Think Splendor in the Cicada Beds.)

And this raises the question of why, after all, entomologists care so much about getting the animals they spend their lives studying onto other peoples’ dinner plates. “You don’t hear ornithologists urging people to go out and eat English sparrows, do you?” I asked Shelomi in a Skype interview.

“If you eat something, you’re clearly not afraid of it,” he said. “We want to get people over their fear of insects. So I think a lot of the entomophagy is—sure—the sustainability thing, but also, insects can be fun, they can be cute, they can be adorable. Insects are awesome, and now they can be awesomely delicious too.”

Marketing geniuses of America, this is your moment. The mealworms and bush crickets are ready for their close-up.