Insects are healthy and sustainable. But people are reluctant to eat them. Scientists are on the lookout for insect recipes which do appeal to westerners. It seems to be almost as difficult as getting foreigners to develop a taste for Dutch salty liquorice.
If westerners are willing to eat insects at all, they like them mashed into something. Finely ground and unrecognizable. And even then they often try them once and leave it at that. A mealworm chocolate is good for a laugh at a party, but don’t expect us to eat insect burgers twice a week.
‘So far insects are seen in the west primarily as an alternative source of protein,’ says Grace Tan Hui Shan, a researcher at Food quality and design. It is different in countries such as Thailand, where insects are a common part of a meal, she says. ‘The recipes there are much more geared to the taste experience.’
Tan and her colleagues studied how insect products could be adapted so that people in western countries want to buy them. ‘So far most studies have focused mainly on psychological aspects. In our research we also looked at the influence of flavour and presentation. What are people’s expectations of the product, and what do they enjoy?’
Meatballs and shakes
When a new product comes on the market, it is often extolled by comparing it with a flavour or dish that the consumer is familiar with. After all, we all tend to like what we know… But because there is no custom of eating insects in the west, we don’t know which way of eating them would make them appeal to consumers, says Tan. She compared two products for her study: mealworm meat balls and a mealworm breakfast drink.
The researchers asked the participants in her study beforehand what their expectations of the product were, whether they would try it once and whether they would want to buy it regularly. Then the test subjects took part in a tasting session and answered the same questions again.
The mealworm meatballs were not as tasty as the participants had expected. Tan: “Because it is presented as a meatball, the expectation is raised that it should taste like meat. This can lead to a disappointment.’ The liquid breakfast, on the other hand, turned out to exceed expectations, but it must be admitted these were not very high. The participants rated the two products more or less equally, but most of them said they would be more likely to buy the meatballs.
Although the taste panel said the breakfast drink tasted fine, not many of them would buy it. Tam is not surprised. She thinks it is not just a matter of flavour, but also of the way a product is presented. ‘I always compare it with salty liquorice. Most Dutch people like it, but if you didn’t grow up with it, it’s not an appetizing idea. A sweet should be sweet and not salty.’
According to Tan, this has to do with people’s experiences and culture as well. ‘In western countries insects are mainly presented as a meat substitute so they are likely to be seen as something that should taste savoury.’ A grasshopper ice cream is fun to try once but most people wouldn’t repeat the experience. To persuade consumers to buy a product again, it should not only taste good, but the presentation should match their expectations. By considering both aspects, you kill two birds with one stone.
But there are other factors at stake too. When the participants were asked what put them off eating insects on a regular basis, they said they thought the products were too expensive and often didn’t know how to cook them. Social considerations played a role too: it is not easy to eat insects if you are sharing a meal with other people who shudder at the thought.
So insects have an image problem. This is largely between our ears, thinks Ger van der Wal, director of Insect Europe, a company which breeds and markets insects. ‘People should try them once first and then they’ll change their minds. When insects first appeared on the market it was in freeze-dried form. But now there are already a load of lovely, tasty products on the market.’ Insect sweets, for instance. ‘With these we try to tempt people into just trying them. Once people have got over that barrier and get used to the idea, they are more willing to try other insect products as well.’
But eating insects will remain a niche market, says Van der Wal. Most insects will be ground and this insect meal can then be added to foodstuffs. Then you get a meatball, for instance, containing 10 percent mealworm.
An incidental advantage of this is that it makes insect products cheaper. The price is still a sticking point. Per gram, insects are a lot more expensive than meat. Van der Wal: ‘If you want to get consumers buying a product regularly it needs to be tasty, healthy and affordable.’ Breeding insects has not been fully automatized yet and is very labour-intensive. Currently there are about 25 companies in Europe breeding them for human consumption. ‘If the industry suddenly wanted to use insect flour on a large scale, we wouldn’t even be able to produce enough at present. Once that does become possible, we shall see a snowball effect.’
Van der Wal expects consumption of insects to increase further in the coming years. ‘It’s got to: the way we are going now we are not going to be able to feed the growing world population.’