Most of our initial reactions to entomophagy or the practice of eating insects would be just like young Simba…’Eww! Gross!’. However real life is not quite Hakuna Matata, we live on the cusp of a food crisis, and insects might just be the golden cricket.
With an exponentially increasing population, predicted to reach 9.7bn by 2050, sustainable ways to support consumption whilst preserving resources are desperately needed. Global meat production has increased 600% since 1950, uses nearly one-third of the Earth’s ice-free land surface and even produces equal greenhouse gas emissions to that of global vehicle exhausts (14.5%). An alternative therefore must be considered.
The case for crickets
Insects deemed viable for Western consumption such as mealworm larvae, crickets and locusts have many benefits including (see also video below):
- lower greenhouse gas emissions by a factor of 100, tenfold less ammonia emissions and only 3 insect species physiologically produce methane .
- 1kg of crickets uses just 1 litre of water compared to 22,000 litres of water required for 1kg of beef .
- High feed conversion efficiency, for example crickets need 12 times less feed than cattle, 4 times less feed as pigs and half as much feed as chickens to produce the same amount of protein (see table) .
- Crickets have higher rates of vitamins and minerals including calcium, iron and zinc .
- Insects’ anatomical differences to humans reduce the risk of spreading zoonotic infections .
- Can be euthanized humanely through freezing and feel very little pain 
Source: AsapSCIENCE Should we all be eating insects?
So what’s the problem?
The biggest obstacle for Western consumers is undeniably the ‘yuck factor’. We have been taught from a young age to see insects as dirty, pests and to reject them as food. However, in reality insects form part of the traditional diets of at least 2bn people and there are over 1900 edible species. Media portrayal through shows like I’m a Celebrity and most recently James Corden’s segment of Spill Your Guts or Fill Your Guts have dramatically stigmatised insects.
What may be shocking is that we all daily eat insects! The US FDA regulations for food safety in the US permit small insects or fragments in food (50 in every 100g of Spinach for example) which accounts to at least 500g per year according to ecologist Dr Marcel Dicke.
The importance of marketing
Megan Miller, founder of Bitty Foods in a recent TedTalk, stated that, ‘insects have a branding problem’. The incorporation of insects into Western markets seems unattainable, yet the change in perspective of raw fish has led to a sushi industry worth $2bn and growing. Subsequently, start-up companies and emerging ‘entopreneurs’ are coming out of the woodwork to meet the growing demand in the West including US-based Big Cricket Farms, hoping to increase production from 8,000 pounds of crickets per month to 25,000 per month.
Insects need to be tied into the shifts in dietary patterns for example, higher protein-to-carbohydrate properties of insect-fortified flour could be integrated into healthy eating trends like superfoods and attract bodybuilders and dieters.
Nevertheless, current marketing efforts have arguably done as much harm for the positive image of entomophagy than the likes of James Corden. Hotlix candy, ‘Bug Banquets’ (below right) and even Noma, the two-Michelin star restaurant rated best restaurant in the world in 2014 have tried to introduce insects to consumers. However the ‘dessert of sheep’s milk and ant paste’ or still twitching botan prawn topped with black ants (below left) from Noma’s menu is not dissimilar to a Bushtucker trial in I’m a Celebrity.
Marketing of entomophagy must therefore focus on normalization rather than novelty. Companies must consider consumer feedback and make products that render the insects unrecognizable . This is evident in the rise of both demand and supply for cricket flour, ground crickets mixed with an even ratio of flour that retains the same cooking properties. Celebrity advocacy for entomophagy is needed but also a focus on ‘interpersonal channels’ as ‘people are less influenced by what they see on television than by what their friends and family are eating’.
Normalisation will be heavily dependent on the value in which insects are marketed. If insects live up to their prediction of being ‘the next sushi’ they will be seen and priced as a luxury commodity and economically exclude many consumers. If priced affordably insects will be viable to the majority of consumers and become further normalised in everyday cuisine. It is therefore up to retailers, that have disproportionate influence over what is considered edible, to encourage consumption and stimulate the snowballing effect among consumers.
It is not just the demand side of entomophagy that limits its rise in the West. The supply of insects is limited, wild insects are only seasonally available and have a short shelf life. Limited demand raises prices, which has resulted in price hikes that in some cases are 40% higher than the equivalent weight in beef. However, with the rise of insect production in the West and entrepreneurs such as Aspire Food Group and Bugs for Life, insect farming could provide families in the developing world with an income through selling excess supply; although cultural complexities regarding native and proposed species must be considered.
Source: Aspire Food Group
Ultimately entomophagy and its adoption in Western markets is growing and will very likely reach supermarket shelves soon. The case for insects as a meat replacement however, although nutritionally and sustainably plausible, is in the distant future due to high costs, limited supply and stigmatisation from consumers. However, insects crafted as snacks and baking products such as Chirps Chips and Chirps cookie mix could be the ‘gateway bug’ to hook consumers. As Timone puts it, ‘You’ll learn to love em’.
It all starts with you, what do you think: are bugs too much of a crunch for lunch or could they be jeepers keepers?