Selling The Bug Diet

With Thanksgiving coming up in two weeks, many Americans have started to think with pleasure about gorging on delicious roast turkey, stuffing, lots of gravy, mashed potatoes, maybe some cranberry relish, and a slice of pie or two. As this traditional and highly food-oriented holiday approaches, however, other people are trying to figure out how to convince Americans to eat insects.

Last week PNAS–the website for the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America–carried an article entitled How To Convince People To Eat Insects. The article begins with an anecdote about Pennsylvanians watching mealworms sizzle in a pan as they learned about an insect diet from a naturalist, when a little girl ate a mealworm that popped up from the pan and said it tasted like kettle corn. After this promising, taste-oriented start (which makes you wonder, incidentally, what kind of kettle corn that little tyke has been getting) the article restates arguments for a bug diet that we’ve been hearing for years. It notes that eating insects is a lot more environmentally friendly, because farmed insects are much more efficient than cows in turning feed into “edible weight,” and–as anyone who watched Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom knows–people in other countries have been eating insects as a source of nutrients and protein and a regular part of their diet for centuries.

Then the article gets to the nub of the issue: how do you get Americans to move past their instinctive revulsion at the thought of munching on crickets and actually try some bug-based food–like a pizza covered with mealworms? (Incidentally, if you didn’t shudder inwardly at the idea of a pizza crawling with tiny worms, you’re probably ready to try a cricket energy bar already.) One key part of the process, according to the article, is to make sure that people don’t actually see any identifiable insect parts, like a wing or a grasshopper leg, or know that the cookie they are eating used ground black soldier fly larvae as a flour ingredient. (These are real food examples from the article, folks.) That means not prominently featuring pictures of grasshoppers, locusts, or flies on the packaging for the product.

Marketing the insect diet properly will be a key part of process, too. The article recognizes that Americans haven’t really responded to arguments that eating bugs is better for our planet, healthier, and or a good source of protein, because altruistic behavior doesn’t really motivate food choices for most people–so how do you convince Americans to give insect-based products a try? Celebrity endorsements apparently have made people somewhat more willing to try a bug bite, and making sure that the products taste good and are aesthetically pleasing is important, too. And if you can convince some people to eat bugs and enthusiastically endorse the practice in conversations with their friends, cultural mores may convince more people to give that mealworm pizza a try.

More insect-based food is probably in our future. With food prices going up, it will allow manufacturers to produce cheaper products, and in Ohio some people are predicting that local farms will start to incorporate growing and harvesting insects. But if you really want to get people to eat bugs as a matter of course, I think you need to adopt the kind of high-impact marketing that you find in clickbait articles. For example, bugs like beetles and crickets are low in carbs. Why not advertise “Cricket Crunchers” as a key element of a low-carb diet and a sure-fire way to melt away that stubborn belly fat? Putting them in a brightly colored cellophane bag and featuring an endorsement from an ageless celebrity like Jennifer Aniston would help, too.