A few years ago, French chef David Faure traveled to Asia. The many different bugs routinely offered for consumption in that part of the world inspired him to create an insect-based tasting menu at Aphrodite, his Michelin-starred restaurant in Nice. Adventurous diners could sample “crickets in a whiskey bubble with cubes of French toast and pears,” or “squares of peas, carrot foam, and mealworms.
According to a new study by Swiss scientists, Faure’s marketing strategy to make bugs more palatable to Western diners was a good one: present insects as an exotic delicacy or a luxurious indulgence, rather than a healthy protein source that is more environmentally responsible than consuming meat. They just published their fundings in .
This is part of broader push toward accepting insects as an alternative protein source in Western diets, since food production accounts for as much as 25% of greenhouse gas emissions, much of that due to livestock. Farming insects could reduce that significantly. But how to overcome the strong revulsion most Westerners feel upon encountering insects in their food?
Ars’ own John Timmer recently sampled a host of insect-based dishes created by chef Joseph Yoon, featured in the Smithsonian Channel’s new show, . And it turns out that in the hands of a skilled cook, like Yoon or Faure, bugs can be quite palatable. Whether that’s sufficient to overcome widespread Western aversion to the creepy crawlies is another matter.
That’s what Sebastian Berger and his colleagues at the University of Bern in Switzerland set out to discover. First, they randomly recruited 180 participants in one of Cologne, Germany’s most highly trafficked town squares, inviting them to participate in a consumer study focusing on “new products.” The volunteers had no idea they were offering to eat insects, which must have come as a bit of a shock. There was good reason for this: the researchers wanted to weed out a self-selection effect among those who were super-keen to eat bugs, or those especially grossed-out by the prospect. (They were careful to screen for any relevant allergies and also excluded pregnant women.)
Once the participants had been selected, each was shown some version of an advertisement for insect-based food, and given a flyer. They wrote a short statement responding to the ad they watched, and then had the option to eat a yummy chocolate truffle stuffed with about 20 mealworms. Some of the ads emphasized the environmental or health benefits of eating bugs (“eco-friendly” or “fair trade”); others appealed to more hedonistic traits, presenting them as “delicious,” “exotic,” or “trendy.” They also completed a questionnaire to help assess how prone to disgust they were.
“Once a person is willing to eat mealworm truffles, s/he is also prone to try mealworm burgers or other products.”
Berger and his co-authors were surprised to find that the ads that emphasized the pleasurable aspects of eating insects proved far more effective at influencing participants’ willingness to eat the mealworm truffle. Those same participants also rated the taste much higher than people who tried the truffle but saw the ads emphasizing health or environmental benefits. They concluded that this is because the aversion to eating bugs is emotional rather than rational. So appealing to emotions would naturally be a better marketing strategy to change consumer behavior.
There are some caveats. The study was limited to a single market (Cologne, Germany), and the scientists acknowledge that their results might not transfer to other markets. It also only tested one product, the mealworm truffles, but the authors note that their prior research showed a high correlation of eating behavior across products. In other words, they write, “Once a person is willing to eat mealworm truffles, s/he is also prone to try mealworm burgers or other products.”
Then again, that strategy didn’t pan out so well for Faure. The Michelin critics didn’t share his enthusiasm for insect , and took away his coveted Michelin star in 2014. Aphrodite closed its doors for good in 2016. But perhaps Faure just jumped the gun a bit and bugs will become the next hot culinary trend.