Navigating the New Food Movement

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Friday November 17, 2017
  • Austin, Texas', 10th annual Austin Bug Eating Festival in June brought out hundreds of kids and adults to "tour of the exciting new culinary world of insect cuisine," as the show promoters put it. Detroit's Wayne State University held a similar conference in May 2016, a three-day, first-ever, international, interdisciplinary conference on the topic of insects as food and feed.​ (In a bit of news that may restore your faith in Nebraska common sense, Lincoln holds its own similar annual Bugfest, but without a single mention of the gourmet aspect of bugs.)
  • The usual annual freaky fair fare now includes, at this year's Wisconsin State Fair, cricket nachos. The vendor, All Things Jerky, says it has been selling insect snacks at the fair since 2011, including chocolate-covered scorpions and ant lollipops.
  • "Ecological entomologist" Marcel Dicke's TED talk pitching a case for adding insects to everyone's diet includes delicacies like locusts and caterpillars, which he claims can compete with meat in taste and nutrition, while offering an environment-friendly alternative. His online video is approaching 1.5 million views.
  • The Nordic Food Lab, featured in a November 2016 issue of London's Independent, is the brainchild of a Michelin-starred chef and a culinary entrepreneur to promote "a holistic approach" to eating. "We try to work with every type of produce," explains Roberto Flore, Head of Culinary Research and Development  at the lab." Insects, blood, jelly fish, fermented products and even feces are fair game. "It’s about giving people more confidence with different produce and reconnecting with the process of producing food." 

And those are just the tip of the anthill. From Bloomberg to The Economist, Slate to Huffington Post, entomophagy—the practice of eating insects—has become the rage. More than 2,000 insect species are eaten around the globe, mainly in the tropics, and new-food advocates want many of them to come to a supermarket near you.

Advocates for edible insects as an alternative protein source for people and animals promote them as improvements over animal-based meat because they produce lower greenhouse gas emissions, convert feed into protein more efficiently, use less land and can transform low-value organic matter into high-value protein.

No less than Kofi Annan, former secretary-general of the United Nationas in a May 2016 interview surrounding the Paris climate-change summit sang their praise. "We cannot continue the way we are producing and consuming meat.... And of course there are alternative sources of protein.... [Instects] make up part of the diet of two billion people and are commonly eaten in many parts of the world. Eating insects is good for the environment and balanced diets."

"I'm not sure if it will be in five years or 50," argues Austin Miller, owner of Oregon's Craft Crickets, "but we'll all be eating insects eventually."

Bugging consumers to turn to bugs is part of the wider green-shaming movement to turn your shoppers against meat. Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of the Washington-based animal-rights advocacy Humane Society of the United States, for instance, details the group's plans to support marketing of meat alternatives in his new Humane Economy. HSUS has already invested half a million dollars into Beyond Meat, a startup dedicated to disguising non-animal products as meat, and the organization has a long history of promoting animal-based protein as disgusting and gruesome—although, to Pacelle's credit, the organizations appears to see bugs more as fellow beings than as food source, a paradox many bug-eating vegans may eventually come up against.

Plenty of strong arguments can be made—and have been made—about the flawed underlying assumptions about the environmental dangers of traditional, animal-based meat. But the real problem with converting consumers to bugs is less cerebral: Ick. Need we say more?

"While eating insects seems to be a rational solution to the challenge of efficiently supplying animal protein to a growing world population," writes Tulane food marketing professor Eric Hamerman, "many people—especially those in the Western Hemisphere—are unwilling to even contemplate eating insects. In the United States, those who do eat insects tend to do so as a dare...rather than for their nutritional value."

Inconsistent and illogical though it may sometimes be, Hamerman says, disgust at eating bugs is a deeply ingrained food aversion. Shoppers willing to at least consider trying bugs may be convinced to eat them by increasing their familiarity with them in the kitchen. But, he writes, "If someone is extremely disgusted by the thought of a dead insect being served as food, ...no amount of cooking can transform the bug-based ingredients thoroughly enough to...convince him or her to re-categorize it as non-disgusting food."

What would it ever take to get shoppers past that disgust factor? Here's the long list Dutch tropical entomologist Arnold van Huis spells out in his review of the future of bug-eating in the Proceedings of the Nutrition Society:

Try it, you'll like it? People who have eaten insects before have a more positive attitude towards entomophagy than the people who haven't, he writes. However, he doesn't elaborate on which comes first, willingness to eat a bug or satisfaction at having done so.
Appeal to higher purpose? Providing information about the nutritional and environmental benefits of edible insects should sway them, he believes. Will consumers really shop their conscience by eating maggots? The jury is out.
When in doubt, disguise? Baking termites and lake flies into crackers, muffins, sausages and meat loaf can make them more salable—if shoppers are advocates for bug eating from the start, van Huis says. He also suggests slowly ratcheting up the concentration of hidden bug parts in flour until one day there's less flour and more bug.
'Hey, Orkan Man?' Using the right celebrity spokesman might convince disgusted consumers, he suggests. Topping his suggested list: the U.N.'s Annan and the chefs of some of the world's best restaurants.

A pig is a cow is a fly is a cricket? Bug marketers may succeed by, in van Huis' words, "Indicating the systematic proximity in animal classification between insects and crustaceans." In other words: "Shrimp" is just Old Norse for "giant pill bug"—really tasty giant pill bug.

Is this worm antibiotic-free? Surveys show half of respondents in the United States consider germs and disease as a risk in eating insects. Although he argues science and government can get them over that hurdle with more and better information, that assumption remains debatable in a country where eight in 10 consumers stubbornly persist in concerns about nonexistent hormones in their chickens.

Cook it, and they will come? van Huis points to studies arguing rational pitches about environment and nutrition will never bring consumers over to the bug. The only way to make insects acceptable is to make them delicious. Good luck with that.

Dime a dozen? Safe, high-quality and affordable, van Huis argues, will eventually bring shoppers around to bugs, just as it does with any food.

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