The idea of eating insects has gained traction in recent years as a potentially environmentally friendly protein source, similar in their nutritional composition to conventional meat. Last year, the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) estimated that about two billion people regularly eat insects, but also recognised that consumer acceptance may be one of the biggest challenges to commercialising them for food in many parts of the world.
Van Huis is a tropical entomologist at Wageningen University in the Netherlands and an advisor on edible insects to the FAO. He says there are many ways to make insects tasty, and getting people to try them a second time is not a problem; it is convincing people to take the first bite that poses the greatest challenge.
“There is a saying that ‘you are what you eat’, and insects do not have a very good reputation in the western world,” he said. “People think of insects as being dirty, so that’s one thing that has to be stressed, is that insects are absolutely safe…You can make insects very delicious.”
His team has developed meatballs containing 50% conventional meat and 50% ground mealworms – and in a blind taste test they found that most people preferred the insect-containing product to those made with 100% conventional meat.
In order to make insects commercially viable, van Huis said companies need to have a realistic strategy.
“There are people who will categorically refuse to eat insects and that is not the group that you target, but there are 20 to 30% who sincerely want to try it. You should target them,” he said.
“It is much more sustainable than conventional meat – but to convince western consumers you need much more than that it is sustainable and good for the environment.”
“…As for the disgust factor, you have to give people as much information as possible. I think a lot of that has to do with safety. Once you convince people that they are absolutely safe you get rid of a lot of that disgust factor.”
World famous chefs like Noma’s René Redzepi and D.O.M.’s Alex Atala have also helped to boost the profile of insects as food.
“It’s also about emotions – and that’s one of the difficult things to cover. We can do that by providing information and having top cooks preparing insects and making them really delicious…These guys already prepare insects.”
However, even if consumers can be convinced, there are still legislative barriers to widespread acceptance of insect protein in Europe – although the situation slowly is changing.
Under EU rules, all animals used for food must be slaughtered in an abattoir, which van Huis describes as ridiculous when applied to insects. Other hurdles include whether to seek approval for insects as ingredients via the novel foods procedure, or whether individual member states would accept them based on their safe history of consumption outside of the EU. The Belgian food safety authority recently accepted about ten species of insect under this latter option.
“The food industry is waiting a little bit until these problems have been resolved,” van Huis said. “They are very interested and I think they will jump on board.”
He added that there was potential for burgeoning innovation in the mass production of insects for the animal feed sector to help the food industry, if or when legislation allows widespread mainstream insect consumption in the EU.