Bug appétit! Focus on cooking process for insect palatability

By Niamh Michail

- Last updated on GMT

Chapulines tostadas, or toasted crickets, are a Mexican specialty.
Chapulines tostadas, or toasted crickets, are a Mexican specialty.

Related tags Insect Snack

An advertising campaign that focusses on the transformative nature of cooking insects is more effective than 'entomophagy education', says a US-based researcher.

Previous research has found that direct educational efforts are effective in increasing consumer acceptance of insects as food – but from a practical perspective it is simply not possible to reach a critical mass of consumers though seminars or presentations,​ writes Eric Hamerman.

More targeted and indirect methods of persuasion, such as priming the idea of cooking, would be more workable, he says.

In a 179-strong study, Hamerman measured levels of animal reminder disgust (when people are reminded of their own animal nature) and then gave participants a short extract which positively described cooking as a means of transforming essentially unappetising items into delicious food.

For instance, a crab – essentially a bottom-dwelling aquatic spider – can become a sophisticated seafood dish while fermented milk filled with bacteria becomes cheese or the raw meat from a cow a barbequed steak. Those who had low levels of animal reminder disgust were much more likely to want to try insect at an event called Bug Appétit after being primed in this way.

Cooking crickets over a campfire

So what does that mean for the small start-up trying to sell insects as food? Start with market segmentation, says Hamerman. You can’t please all of the people all of the time…so don’t try.

“In the west, where insects are not commonly eaten, the first step towards convincing people who are low in sensitivity to animal reminder disgust... may be to show them that raw insects can be transformed into less animal-like food through the process of cooking.”

For instance, he suggests that people who enjoy outdoor activities and engage with wildlife on a regular basis have lower sensitivity to animal reminder disgust. “Cricket-based energy bars could be marketed as a complement to outdoor activities in a television commercial that features a cooking prime, such as showing a group of people cooking over a campfire.”

What’s in a name?

Just as people eat pork and veal rather than ‘pig meat’ or ‘baby cow meat’, giving a semantically different name to insects could decrease the ‘animal-ness’ of the ingredient which could in turn promote consumption.

“Rather than alluding to their inclusion of crickets, marketers of energy bars with insect ingredients might simply refer to “alternative protein sources,” or rename cricket meat in much the same way that one cannot deduce from the etymology of the word that “seitan” is an alternative protein source that consists of wheat gluten.”

Another factor to be taken into account by food marketers is that women are more sensitive to animal reminder disgust, and also tend to be the primary food shoppers in most Western households - a familiar appearance is therefore also important.

The study

A total of 179 mixed university students completed a 25-item questionnaire to measure levels of animal reminder disgust (when people are reminded of their own animal nature) , core disgust (stemming from oral consumption of offensive items) and contamination-disgust (from the perceived threat of disease transmission). Half of the subjects then read an extract which positively described cooking  while the control group read a review of a novel. All were then asked if they would prefer to have the chance to win a day at an insect-museum with the chance to try insect-based delicacies afterwards, or a day at an aquarium with no food sampling.

The cooking prime increased preference for the insect buffet among those with low levels of animal reminder disgust Overall, men were less likely to be sensitive to animal reminder disgust. Contamination disgust did not impact on preference for attending Bug Appétit, with or without the cooking prime.

However, the cooking prime did not affect those who were highly sensitive to animal reminder disgust. “If someone is extremely disgusted by the thought of a dead insect being served as food, it may be the case that no amount of cooking can transform the bug-based ingredients thoroughly enough to reduce its ‘animalness’.”

Source: Appetite Journal

“Cooking and disgust sensitivity influence preference for attending insect-based food events.”

Published online ahead of print 30 September 2015, doi:10.1016/j.appet.2015.09.029

Author: Eric J. Hamerman

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