However, processing insects down into less recognisable forms like flour and using them in snack products was still found to be best accepted by consumers, the study found.
Yet, despite some levels of acceptance among participants – and reported growing demands for insect products in Europe -- the idea of eating creepy crawlies got a negative emotional reaction “way beyond” expected disgust.
The team, led by Angelina Gmuer of the Institute for Environmental Decisions at ETH Zurich, therefore also suggest that marketers for insect-based food products should focus on generating a positive emotional response.
“The research indicates that in the development and marketing of insect food, efforts should be undertaken not only to eliminate initial negative expectations of disgust and dissatisfaction but also to generate positive emotional expectations,” the team said.
“We suggest the marketing of snacks containing processed insect ingredients will be more promising, and selling whole insects alone is more preferable to selling a mixed snack. Regardless of the degree of processing of the insect ingredient, the results suggest that marketing activities must contend with a large emotional barrier.”
Insect-based snacks in various degrees of processing were presented to 428 Swiss respondents as pictures in an online survey. The aim was to assess negative and positive emotional expectations that people from a Western country may have toward the consumption of insect snacks.
The snacks included tortilla chips made of cricket flour, tortilla chips containing deep-fried cricket bits, a snack consisting of tortilla chips and deep-fried crickets, and whole deep-fried crickets.
Participants were prompted on 39 different emotional responses, for instance how they felt when imagining eating the product.
Degree of processing of the insect ingredient partly influenced reaction, with the cricket flour and chips containing cricket bits testing more positively than the mix of tortilla chips and deep-fried crickets. However, the researchers note they were surprised to find the whole deep-fried cricket option was rated more positively than expected.
“No significant differences were found in the positive emotional evaluations between the (whole) cricket and (flour based or chips containing crickets) products, with the exception of ‘impassioned’, indicating that the cricket product was not evaluated as negative, as expected,” the team wrote.
The study is a response to a need to find the products containing insects which have a higher acceptance rate among shoppers, the team said. Previous research into Western emotional expectations has been limited, they added.
The researchers stress that present and future challenges in food sustainability means insects are a key focus for scientists as an alternative to dwindling meat supplies.
“It is estimated that the global population will increase to 9.1 billion by 2050,” the team wrote, noting knock on effects such as urbanisation and rising incomes will mean changes in the food supply are inevitable.
For one, an increase of an estimated 200 million tons in meat production.
However, the idea of consciously eating insects as part of a Western diet is not a popular one with consumers. The new study found no change in mind set in general, with the highest ranking emotional responses to the insect products in general including “strange”, “sickened”, “grossed out”, “irritated”, “uneasy” and “dreadful”.
Comparison with standard, non-insect tortilla chips “illustrated this discrepancy and makes us assume that insect snacks are far from being on a par with well-established products,” the team summarised.
Nor is the concept popular with some countries who have not yet approved insects for food consumption, including the homeland of this study, Switzerland.
The researchers suggested further studies into acceptability of the different insect products is crucial to improve uptake.
“Because the survival rate of general new products is small and new alternatives to traditional market success predictors such as acceptance (liking) ratings are needed, research on insect food-related emotional experiences may be useful to guide product development,” the researchers said.