There’s no shortage of free-thinking chefs and food entrepreneurs betting that healthy, protein-rich insects are on the verge of entering the mainstream Western diet. Startups in the U.S. and the Netherlands are already farming food-grade bugs, a British company is designing insect-based sushi boxes, and there’s even a cookbook for haute insect fare. But although bugs are already eaten by 2 billion people in non-Western cultures, there’s still a massive ick factor to overcome before we’ll see the majority of Americans crunching away.
A few researchers from Belgium’s Ghent University have now scoped out the early adopter market for bug-based delicacies.
Their study, which surveyed 400 Belgian citizens, found that one out of every five meat eaters claimed to be “ready” to adopt insect foods–with “younger males with a weak attachment to meat, who are more open to trying novel foods and interested in the environmental impact of their food choice” being the most likely early consumers.
Overall, men were twice as likely to eat bugs than women, and every 10-year increase in age was associated with a 27% decrease in the likelihood of eating insects, they report in the journal Food Quality and Preference. The most influential factor in a person’s willingness to eat bugs, however, was their “food neophobia,” which makes sense: that just refers to one’s usual level of aversion to trying new food. (High food technology neophobia also made people more averse to insects–the authors suggest that informing consumers about how insects are grown might be helpful.)
What is clear is that there is a global environmental and food security benefit to more widespread insect consumption. When the world hosts 9 billion people by 2050, it’s estimated that current food production will have to nearly double, and agriculture experts are desperately seeking new innovations to do this in a world where resources are scarce and pollution and overfishing are growing concerns. According to a UN Food and Agriculture Organization 2013 report called Edible Insects–the organization’s first-ever look at bugs as a food source–insects have the potential to provide a low environmental cost, highly efficient form of protein. If, of course, they can get an image makeover.
The Ghent University researchers also note that as traditional bug-eating cultures start adopting Westernized diets, insect eating is actually on the decline. So a stronger acceptance of insects in Western societies could actually influence insect-eating all over the world. Globally, the UN notes, the most commonly consumed insects are beetles, caterpillars, bees, wasps, and ants. Crunch away.