An overconsumption of meat and increasing pressure on land and water resources is making it challenging to feed a population that is growing at a faster pace than the food supply chain. The over-exploitation of agricultural resources and the natural ecosystem is contributing to severe issues such as global warming, food insecurity and mineral depletion. It is necessary to find alternative sources of protein, both for direct human consumption and for animal feed. In this regard a new valid and sustainable substitute is garnering public attention: insects. Among the several edible insects which can be farmed, the most likely to become part of our daily meals are soldier flies, yellow mealworms, crickets, grasshoppers and cockroaches.
A sustainable alternative
The adoption of insects in the western diets offers relative advantages over traditional animal protein sources that can benefit both our health as well as the environment:
- Insects are highly nutritious: rich in proteins, fats, minerals and vitamins. Moreover, they consume a large range of organic materials and have the capability to transform relatively low-quality organic feedstock residues into valuable proteins and lipids. Nutritionally speaking, insects can be divided into three macronutrients, i.e., proteins, fats and chitin. These, along with frass, insect excrement valid as a fertilizer product, can also be used to produce energy, biodiesel and bioplastic.
- Insects have a higher percentage of edible parts since they are invertebrates and have no bones, cartilage nor hair.
- Insects have a low environmental impact in terms of greenhouse gas emissions and ammonia. Industrial meat production accounts for around 8% of the total greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere that contribute to climate change and the raise in temperature. Instead, insect production is responsible for less than 1% of the methane emissions. Furthermore, it requires less water compared to other livestock. Pat Crowley, the founder of Chapul, an insect protein product company, showed that for 100 gallons of water we produce 6 grams of beef meat, 19 grams of chicken, 63 grams of soy and 71 grams of crickets thereby suggesting that the consumption of insects could alleviate the problem of water scarcity.
- Insects requires little physical space and can be raised in a vertical space one on top of the other with the consequence of a reduction in the use of soil and a decrease in the pressure on land used for meat.
- Insects play an important role in the processing of organic waste. They have a higher feed conversion rate than other livestock. The feed conversion efficiency ratio is how much food an animal needs to consume to gain one pound of weight. Cows require 25 pounds of feed to produce one pound of meat while crickets need 2 pounds of feed to produce one. Being exothermic means that they do not have to undertake the complex energy intensive physiological processes to regulate their temperature and that allows them to convert what they eat more efficiently into nutrients.
Disgust and neophobia barriers
Western countries are still resistant to the introduction of insects into their daily diet for a variety of reasons with entomophagy still being viewed as a taboo subject. Entomophagy is the technical term that refers to the consumption of edible insects as a source of nutrition. Ignorance, fear, dislike, and disgust are the main drivers of this enduring entomophobia. The westerners’ classic feeling of disgust is a form of cognitive process which arises from perceived or real associations of insects with objects of core disgust. The law of contamination further claims that the disgust reaction is also amplified by objects that have been contacted by the initial source of disgust.
An experiment conducted by Paul Rozin demonstrated how if any repulsive food touches something benign, the latter, even if physically unchanged is immediately less desirable. In his experiment he took a cockroach that had been sterilized, dipped it into a glass of orange juice, then asked if anyone was willing to take a sip. According to participants perception the juice had become “infected” as soon as the cockroach touched it. The disgusted reaction of the participants was essentially irrational as none of them was willing to drink the juice despite knowing that it was safe to do so and that the drink had not been contaminated by the “clean” and purified cockroach.
Disgust also arises when consumers are reminded of the origin of the animals they are eating. When whole insects are found in a food product, not only is the law of contamination described above triggered but also the association of insects with dead animals and decomposition. For this reason many studies have pointed out how the invisibility of insects (in a cookie) leads to increased willingness compared to their unprocessed counterparts (such as mealworms and crickets).
Food neophobia is another root cause of the prejudice of western societies towards entomophagy: it corresponds to the fear and refusal to try new or unfamiliar foods. These fears derive from a primitive protective reflex that acts through food safety behaviors. For this reason, the negative attitude towards insects’ consumption is caused by an initial suspicion of novel and unfamiliar foods that influences consumer perception in accommodating new food experiences. Mimicking familiarity and incorporating novel food in familiar dishes can accelerate consumers’ willingness to accept the novel food and eventually tackle the yuck factor. Not only the appearance but also the gastronomic integration of texture and taste are relevant factors to influence the final culinary experience of the consumers.
Western culture’s little experience and lack of social context for entomophagy is due to a strong alignment of the traditional diets with the social norms of nearby cultures. Consequently, all insect-based products are seen as novel food that increases the level of food neophobia of the westerners. A study shows that people are more willing to take part in new food experiences either in company or if introduced by a positive social model who could mitigate the typical disgust response. Examples of social influencers are parents and teachers who, by introducing insects’ food in early childhood diets could encourage a higher consumption of those unfamiliar food also when children are older.
The lack of social norm and context and the little opportunity for observability made people less aware of the opportunities available for adoption of entomophagy in western countries. A lack of necessity is a barrier for the adoption of entomophagy in the western culture in which the high production and consumption of meat is perceived as a lack of need for new meat-based alternatives. Consumers have a hierarchy of food when selecting meat in which novel food are usually situated at the bottom. A good strategy would be to avoid promoting new meat as an alternative but highlighting the environment benefits and health advantage that the introduction of insects implies.
The inclusion of insects in our diet is an innovative solution to the problem posed by the demand of a growing population and could relieve pressure on the limited resources of our planet, reduce soil exploitation and alleviate water scarcity issues. Nevertheless, the main concern is about how entomophagy is still largely incompatible with western ideals despite the available information about the advantages of the adoption of new insect-based products. The complexity is mainly due to a disgust response because of food neophobia together with a lack of social context and awareness. The aim of the adoption of entomophagy is to incentivize western economies to introduce insects in their diets by increasing consciousness about the beneficial effects the transition to insect feeding may have.
McDade, H., & Collins, C. M. (2019a, June 13). How Might We Overcome ‘Western’ Resistance to Eating Insects. IntechOpen.
Godwin, R. (2021, May 8). If we want to save the planet, the future of food is insects. The Guardian.Com.
Farming insects to save the world | Pat Crowley | TEDxMcMinnville. (2019, February 27). YouTube.
Edible Insects: A Revolutionary protein to feed the world | Yesenia Gallardo | TEDxSalem. (2017, April 12). YouTube.
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