Taste education boosts sales for edible insects

Edible insects might be the key to easing the growing demand for meat, cutting greenhouse gas emissions, and curbing food prices. Can education programs help make edible insects more palatable to the consumer?

Toshiyuki Aizawa/Reuters/File
An 80-millimeter (3.15 inch) long stag beetle is seen at Wakuwaku Land, an insect speciality store in Tokyo August 13 as it arrives from a breeder in central Japan.

With over 2,000 species of edible insect, and over 30 percent of the world’s population already eating insects as part of a traditional diet, entomophagy (i.e. the practice of eating insects) provides a fantastic lens through which to explore global themes such as food security, biodiversity and climate change.

With a projected 75 percent increase in demand for meat by 2050, and livestock production competing for scarce resources (such as land, water, fertiliser) edible insects are framed as an efficient, protein-rich alternative for both human consumption and animal feed. Statistics are further cementing insects as a solution to global crises: If everyone on earth switched to eating insects, 30 percent of the world’s land surface could be reclaimed from livestock; 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions could be eliminated; 33 percent could be cut from average food prices in most countries.

While statistics paint an outline, we also need stories to create value behind our food. Entomophagy is also a chance to explore the more intimate aspects of our food system: cultural heritage and diverse food cultures, individual tastes and experiences, and social values ranging from revulsion to reverence.

As we continue to research the role of edible insects in the future of global diets and agricultural systems, we should not risk eroding this diversity at the expense of insects becoming an abstract commodity or universal “solution” to global crises. Three young women – RebeccaCharlotte and Annie - from Oxford, U.K., have started to explore the role of taste education in the protection and appreciation of entomophagy and diversity.  

What is Taste Education?

The notion of taste education stems from Slow Food, an international movement campaigning for good, clean, fair food. With globalisation of Western diets and lifestyles, the dive  rsity of traditional foods and the cultures and environments that underpin them are in jeopardy. As consumers, this undermining risks further detaching us from the enjoyment, tastes, textures, aromas, and fascinating stories behind our foods. 

As Slow Food states:

“By understanding where our food comes from, how it was produced and by whom, adults and children can learn how to combine pleasure and responsibility in daily choices and appreciate the cultural and social importance of food.”

So, the question is: how effective is taste education in educating and inspiring people about the diverse socio-cultures and environments underpinning edible insects?

First, taste education helps to harness curiosity surrounding entomophagy and uses this as a tool for further knowledge exploration on underlying themes such as food culture, climate, and sustainable diets.

The trio’s first workshop was at Tandem Festival, an annual festival in Oxfordshire which celebrates arts, culture, and environments from across Europe. Here, around 30 attendees were met with a table adorned with hornet nests and silk worm cocoons, caterpillars in test tubes, silk worm pupae, grasshoppers and wasp larvae. The panoply of insect cuisine was approached with both excitement and caution, as shown by the range of comments made after an initial tasting:

“Grasshoppers are sweet, crunchy, and leggy,” “Will they sting me?” and, commenting on silk worm pupae, “The textures were a challenge but the taste was strong, full, and meaty.”

The adrenaline from experiencing new tastes and textures helped to spark debate. Topics included insects and welfare in wild and farmed environments, the policy surrounding entomophagy and its role in “the future of food,” and the links between edible insects, psychology and taste. For example, perhaps it is the fact you eat the insect whole that makes it “icky” ("You wouldn't shove a pig, trotters and all, into your mouth"); and what about the importance of machoism ("I'll eat that grub 'cos I'm macho") when it comes to eating unusual or potentially unsafe foods?

Second, taste education can help one reach beyond their “culinary comfort zones” and value the unknown. Consumer preference is incredibly important when determining whether or not insects will be accepted as a food choice in the West. With gastronomy being dynamic and based on culinary norms in a particular society, taste education is a chance to help challenge set tastes and values towards entomophagy and slowly transform the initial “ick factor” into intrigue.

This is particularly important among children and adolescents, a demographic that have not developed such strong habits and emotions towards specific food groups. For example, at Tandem Festival in Oxford, U.K. around a third of the group was aged between 5–10 years old; the perfect participants for creating a nutritious “bug banquet.” Picnic benches offered an array of roasted vegetables, locally baked breads and wraps, cheeses, and edible insects. Through experimentation, they found that silk worms go particularly well with blue cheese, and grasshoppers add crunch to creamy avocado on sourdough bread.

At Love Bug, a taste education event targeted at young adults, Rebecca and Annie cooked with traditional aphrodisiacs and edible insects. The meal included fresh pasta with an umami-rich silk worm and tomato sauce, hornet liquor-infused drinks, and grasshopper and white chocolate petit fours. The tablecloths were sheets of paper, inviting the guests to scribble and doodle thoughts and sensory experiences as they ate, interacted, and learned about each course. This experience highlighted the important links between our sensory responses, our geography and tradition, and what makes a revered delicacy.

Overall, by letting people prepare or eat a meal in a social setting, they went from poking at insects in disgust to being involved emotionally, gastronomically, and intellectually with entomophagy as a concept and practice. The individual focus and hands-on element of taste education gives people agency and a voice, which can then be grounded in global perspectives, debates on entomophagy, and its link to society, environment, and culture. This resonates with the powerful quote:

“To eat is a necessity, to eat intelligently is an art.”

With an upcoming Bug Banquet workshop at Green Man Festival, U.K. in August, the potential of taste education as a tool to explore and appreciate the rich world of entomophagy is motivating in itself. What makes it more so is that, this time, we will be combining an appreciation of provenance with an exploration of “The Future,” further catalysing a shift from seeing insects as a “pest” to “potential” in sustainable food and agricultural systems.

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