Westerners are not super keen on eating bugs. Considering insects are high in protein and low in calories, they are a very sustainable source of food and humans have eaten bugs for pretty much as long as we’ve been a species, there’s no great reason for this. Insects are not particularly “dirtier” than anything else we eat, and aren’t objectively weirder than eating things like oysters or shrimp.
The reason we don’t eat bugs is because of a taboo, and food taboos are really hard to break. They usually arise for fairly practical reasons: for example, early agricultural tribes may have identified swarms of locusts – totally edible and delicious if properly prepared – with the mass-destruction of their crops. If a swarm of locusts appeared, they were understandably more horrified than hungry, and that horror could easily turn into disgust at the prospect of living off of the animal that led to your ruin.
But because they aren’t totally rational, food taboos can also be broken. In some parts of the U.S., for example, there used to be a taboo against eating lobster, but over time, economic forces like tourism, canning, and the rise of railroads conspired to dissolve the taboo and switch lobster from a trash food to a delicacy.
Those same economic and cultural forces seem to be pushing bugs into the mainstream – because bugs are cheap, sustainable, and healthy, they will, over time, probably hit a tipping point and become a commonplace snack in western culture. But for now, the widespread disgust at the idea of eating creepy-crawlies remains. And the members of a small but growing movement to eat more bugs find themselves facing a strange challenge: how do you convince people to do the rational thing and eat more bugs?
How to fight a food taboo
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The first #CookingWithCritters class at #StoneViewNatureCenter with the LA Parks & Rec district was a huge success! Thanks @mercimercado_us @lithicnutrition & @entomofarms for sharing bug products for us to create critter caviar, stuffed peppers, tomato poppers, and cookies! Due to the popularity of the class, we will be expanding the courses soon 🍅🌶🐜 #bugible
Justin Butner is a writer and entomophagist (insect-eater) who has spent a lot of time trying to convince westerners to give bugs a try. It can be an uphill battle, so he and his compatriots employ several different strategies. “A good communicator,” he says, “knows when to speak with figures and stats, when to tell a story, and when to ask questions.”
And some approaches are more effective than others: Entomo Farms is an Ontario-based insect farm that was founded with a vision of using insects as a more sustainable source of protein. But when it came to convincing people to give bugs a try, the health approach was much more effective than the environmental approach. It makes sense, Butner says: “More protein than beef, more calcium than milk, more B12 than salmon, all 9 essential amino acids – the list goes on…They’ve got prebiotic fiber, the nutrients for the probiotic gut bacteria that’s become a focus in the past few years.” Given that health food is still very much on the rise, it’s a pretty good train to hitch your wagon to.
But this still doesn’t help with getting over the biggest part of the taboo, which is the “ick” factor. Disgust is a natural human response that prevents us from harming ourselves, but what we find disgusting has a large social component to it, and it can be hard to push back against these deep-seated, ingrained responses.
So one way around this problem? Bring the bugs to people who haven’t been socialized to find bugs disgusting yet: kids. “Give anyone serving insects a group with some children,” Butner says, “and they’re going to run out of insects.” He adds that kids who come to their events are often then able to be “brand ambassadors,” and convince their parents to try the insects, too.
If only Taylor Swift ate bugs
So what about the people who don’t have kids? How do you get them on board? The obvious answer, in the age of social media, is “influencers.” People take cues from celebrities and personalities, so getting prominent people to try eating insects is an obvious angle. “If Taylor Swift tweeted about loving cricket cookies,” Butner told me, “there would be a run on cricket powder.”
Pop stars are tough to get to, though, so a much easier route is to get prominent chefs using bugs in their cuisine. Some won’t go for it, but, as Butner points out, some chefs will be pretty pleased by the opportunities introducing bugs into their pantries will present. “Suddenly you’ve got about 2000 new ingredients to work with, each with their own unique flavor profile.”
Professional Chef Joseph Yoon is one such chef – he founded Brooklyn Bugs, which throws events (and even a festival) that introduce people to bugs via fine cuisine. People might be more keen to try Japanese hornet, for example, when Yoon pairs it with lobster or wagyu beef.
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We continued our experimentation with the tobacco hornworms we received from Dr. #lousorkin at @amnh by frying them with aged kimchi and yu choy over brown rice. The results were outstanding, and the hornworm took on a lot of the kimchi flavor. Dish was inspired by the #winterolympics currently being in Korea, and prepared by @dinnerecho.
Another approach is through wine-and-bug pairings: Aly Moore, of Bugible, runs events that pair prepared insects with alcoholic drinks, from wine to beer to scotch. There’s even a company called Critter Bitters that sells traditional cocktail bitters that are made out of toasted crickets, which would be pretty easy for even the most squeamish eater to get their head around. Butner adds the wine and liquor pairings have the added benefit of adding liquid courage into the mix. “Some people just need that little nudge,” Butner told me. “The last time I had people eating insects was at a cookie party. For the first half, only a few got eaten. After everyone had time for a drink or two, the tray of chocolate chirp cookies got decimated.”
In the end, there’s no one way to flip the taboo, but when it happens, it will probably happen fast: a mere generation ago, sushi was considered “adventurous,” and now, you can buy it at gas stations. But there was no greater world force pushing sushi in the west, whereas economic and environmental pressures may eventually make the widespread eating of bugs a necessity. So keep an eye on Taylor Swift’s Instagram account.