'The acceptability of insects is influenced by their visibility': Consumer perceptions of edible insects explored

By Augustus Bambridge-Sutton

- Last updated on GMT

'Western' consumers trying insects are more likely to be young and adventurous. Images source: Urilux/Getty Images
'Western' consumers trying insects are more likely to be young and adventurous. Images source: Urilux/Getty Images

Related tags Sustainability alternative protein consumer insights consumer behaviour Insects plant-based

Edible insects have many benefits. They are a good source of alternative protein, a rival to plant-based meat; they are often considered more sustainable than conventional meat; some insects are even higher in protein than beef. However, many consumers in Europe and ‘Western’ countries more generally find edible insects hard to stomach. How should one go about convincing consumers that insects are worth a try?

A new study by Berlianti Puteri, Benedikt Jahnke and Katrin Zander explores the marketing surrounding edible insects. Why do some consumers not want to eat insects, it asks, and how does marketing convince them to give the cuisine a try?

The study found that the main drivers of opposition to eating edible insects are disgust – association of insects with disease and spoiled food, for instance – and neophobia – namely, the fear of the new.

Little pieces of protein

However, edible insects have a lot of benefits. For instance, they’re a form of alternative protein.

Many edible insects have the advantage of being high in nutrients that are important for human nutrition and in a composition comparable to other traditionally consumed animal and plant protein sources​,” Berlianti Puteri, one of the study’s authors, told FoodNavigator.

These nutrients include high protein, fats, B vitamins, zinc, iron and fibre. For example, crickets have nearly three times the protein content of beef​.”

And there are other benefits besides the nutrition, such as sustainability. “Insect production and consumption also has the potential of being more environmentally friendly than traditional livestock production and consumption.​”

For example, insects “have a more efficient feed-protein conversion rate; insects can feed on agricultural by-products and be used as food for humans, contributing to a crucial element of circular food systems; their production releases less greenhouse gases and ammonia; and less land, water, and other resources are needed in their production.

For example, crickets have nearly ten times more efficient feed conversion than cattle and emit up to 100 times less greenhouse gasses than cattle. The water consumption of crickets can also be up to 50 times less compared to cattle​.”

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Some insects appeal more to consumers than others. Image Source: tbradford/Getty Images

Consumer perception – Finding the balance

The paper gathered together data from 45 studies to ascertain which marketing had been successful and which hadn’t in regards to appealing to consumers.  

Appealing to consumers and encouraging them to eat insects was all about striking the right balance.

For example, the research found that in many cases the ‘hidden is best’ strategy – hiding the presence of edible insects in the food – was optimal to reduce barriers to consumer acceptance.

However, knowing that the presence of insects had been hidden from them could increase consumer scepticism and damage consumer perception of edible insects, as there is already a misconception that there is no labelling requirement for insects.

Furthermore, not letting consumers know that a product included insects, the paper suggested, could slow down the normalisation of insects within food products.

The average consumer who is willing to eat insects is young and adventurous, but some insects are considered more palatable than others. Consumer perception differs with different species. For example, grasshoppers are considered more palatable than mealworm, because the latter is often associated with spoiled food or disease.

Price is a major factor in consumer perception. While a low price could remove many barriers to consumer accessibility (especially considering high food prices in recent times), it could also suggest low quality. A high price would assure the consumer that they’re getting a good product.

Semiotics were found to be important as well. Labelling insects with their scientific names were found to be far more effective than using their common names at appealing to consumers, and showing vague images of insects on the packaging was far more effective than showing detailed imagery.

Taste was important, and after a first taste had made a good impression, the studies showed that people were far less sceptical about eating insects. Crunchiness in particular could help distinguish insect protein from its alternative protein rivals, such as plant-based meat.

The acceptability of insects is influenced by their visibility and the type of food in which they are included​,” Puteri told us.

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Insects are already present in Asian cuisine, which could make them more accessible to 'Western' consumers. Source: Hello World/Getty Images

This means that it is advisable to use processed insects as invisible ingredients in foods and to choose foods that consumers consider suitable to be combined with or contain insects.

We have seen some evidences supporting the use of insects in dishes of ethnic origin for attracting Western consumers. However, more research is still needed to draw a conclusion from this.

Given the increasing consumer openness to trying new food and globalisation in the food sector, we see the potential for insects to be perceived as more attractive when used in Ethnic foods, for example Asian cuisine​.”

Euro-bugs

The study focused on ‘Western’ consumers in general, including countries in Europe and North America. The research found that Europe, not America, is leading the way in edible insects.   

Based on our observations, Europe has a more active market compared to Northern America​,” Puteri told us.

Germany, in particular, is leading in the number of product launches, although most of them took place in 2019. Progress in this regard may have slowed down of late due to the COVID-19 pandemic and food price inflation​.

In terms of legislation, the Netherlands and Belgium were among the leading countries in Europe to include edible insects in their food legislation​.”

The future of insects

Insect protein, as an alternative protein source to meat, is already growing in popularity. However, it is overshadowed by the also fast-growing plant-based meat market, which is far more mainstream.

Given the increasing interest of the public and food industry players in alternative protein sources, we believe that edible insects and their products will become more established in the alternative protein market​,” Puteri told us.

Given the increasing interest of the public and food industry players in alternative protein sources, we believe that edible insects and their products will become more established in the alternative protein market.​”

However, we also believe that it will remain a niche market as plant proteins will continue to dominate the race in the alternative protein market.

On the other hand,”​ she concluded, “we see great potential for insects as animal feed to replace imported soy​.”

This would add to the sustainability credentials of edible insects. Nearly 80% of soy crop is fed to animals, driving much of the world’s deforestation. Replacing this with insects could significantly reduce deforestation around the world.

Sourced From: Appetite
'Booming the bugs: How can marketing help increase consumer acceptance of insect-based food in Western countries?’
Published on: 2023
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.appet.2023.106594
Authors: B. Puteri, B. Jahnke, K. Zander

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