Study: More People Will Eat Bugs if They’re Up-Marketed as Luxury Item

Chapulines (crickets) for sale at the Benito Juarez Market in Oaxaca de Juarez, Oaxaca, Mexico. (NSaum75 via Wikipedia)

(CN) – Most people probably find crickets hard to swallow as a substitute for hamburgers.

With six legs, antennae and wings, insects are not the first thing people think of when looking for a protein alternative. But new research indicates bugs may be an easier sell when they’re priced and presented as a luxury food.

According to a study published Tuesday in Frontiers of Nutrition, if marketing can appeal to a person’s self-indulgent tastes they might look past the bug on their plate.

The Food and Agriculture Organizations of the United Nations says insects are an environmentally friendly source of protein when compared to the amount of resources needed to farm livestock. In fact, global food production accounts for 25 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions.

Researchers behind the recent insect study say labels like “eco-friendly” or “fair trade” lose out to advertisements that play up pleasurable aspects, like taste. Insects have not scuttled into the mainstream, but researchers said it’s all about presentation.

The study authors note lobster, the marine crustacean with bug-like qualities, is synonymous with fine dining but that wasn’t always the case.

“Once seen as excessive ‘garbage’ in New England, people quip that regulation even existed that lobsters should not be fed to prisoners too frequently,” according to the study.

Today, lobster plays an important role in New England’s tourism even though it’s hardly affordable for most middle-class consumers.

The average person needs a little more convincing on insects. While other parts of the globe use mealworm and crickets in their cuisine, Western countries are not fans of crunchy, meaty critters on their menu and researchers suggest marketing switch to more “hedonic” campaigns.

Picture a lounging person being fed crickets instead of grapes.

Out of a test group of 180 volunteers who were presented several insect products, more people were willing to try mealworm burgers after they tried mealworm truffles. The truffles were made of about 20 mealworms covered in dark chocolate.

Insects can stir up a person’s emotions, because they’re associated with decaying matter and no amount of rational thought about reducing the carbon footprint can convince someone to swap out burgers for bugs, according to the study.

Much is unknown about people’s attitudes with eating insects or why lobsters are so sought after, but there are those out there who see the benefit.

Practicality wins out with the environmentally conscious customers at Cornucopia Foods in Northampton, Massachusetts, said owner Bud Stockwell.

His natural foods grocery store sells energy bars, protein powder, cookies and pancake mix with crickets. While taste and demand are lacking, Stockwell said he can remember a time when there were only two varieties of lettuce on the market.

“Now you can go for days talking about all the greens available,” said Stockwell.

While vegetables are not the same as insects, Stockwell is optimistic the insect market is out there. “Crickets are the gateway insects,” he said.

Toasted crickets – chapulines in Spanish – are a common staple in Oaxacan cuisine. The family-owned restaurant Guelaguetza in Los Angeles offers them as an appetizer or a meat substitute in their dishes.

Chapulines can be served salted, covered in lemon and offer a crunchy texture.

Jennifer Lopez, communication director at Guelaguetza, said customers do not need to be convinced when they sit down to eat chapulines thanks to word of mouth about the family recipe, which has not changed in 20 years.

“It’s not really a delicacy. It’s as common as black beans,” said Lopez. “We have a more food-focused culture now, with people ready to explore. As trendy as it has become, chapulines are a good reminder that it’s been a tradition. No convincing necessary.”

Study authors include people from the University of Cologne and Fresenius University of Applied Sciences in Germany, Swiss insect marketer Essento Food, and the University of Bern in Switzerland.

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