In the last few weeks my food journey has taken me in a turn I really could never have predicted. I’ve become an official “bug-eater” (this is literally what they’ve started to call us). Through a friend I became really interested in entomophagy, the practice of eating edible insects, and the way in which people differ in their attitudes towards this rather unconventional food. Insects are increasingly becoming a viable solution to many of the current problems with the food industry; they take up less space, are quicker, easier and (arguably) more ethical to farm, and are usually really nutritious. 3 silk worms providing as much protein as an egg and grasshopper equals the protein content of a beef burger, with lower levels of fat and carbohydrate. But despite all these benefits, insect are met with great resistance and disgust.
I’ve had many a heated debate with my dad on this matter; he strongly believes that England will NEVER accept insects into their diets. While I suspect that British people are more open-minded than he may think, I must agree that many people are generally reluctant to consume insects. But why do we have such a strong initial feelings of disgust? This is actually a result of pretty clever psychological process to avoid threat. Insects can carry disease or contamination, so the body creates feelings of disgust as an avoidance mechanism. This is the same reason why we are disgusted at mouldy yoghurt in the fridge or a person with a contagious skin disease – to warn us of danger and ensure we don’t come try and into contact with these potentially harmful pathogens.
However, there is an slight probelm with the disease-association we have formed. 2 billion around the world are eating insects as a key part of diets and certain types are considered a delicacy. In these cultures, they are able to distinguish between disease carrying insects and non-disease carrying insects. In the West however, we over-generalise, meaning that we feel disgusted by insects even when we know they don’t carry disease. Sure, if you invited to eat a mosquito or a parasitic worm I’d suggest you politely refuse. But what have grasshoppers ever done wrong to warrant a bad rep?
I’ve experienced first hand how people feel towards insects, simply by gauging their reactions when we whip out the samples. Often they recoil, many gasp in horror and a one even called us witches. Yes that happened. But the braver folk who have tentatively tried a grasshopper or two generally come away feeling less disgusted, and some even go for seconds. This weekend we (Becca, Charlotte and I) ran an edible insect workshop at Tandem festival for around 20-30 people. We talked about the culture, psychology and wider policy surrounding entomophagy, and gave them a chance to cook with silk worms, grasshoppers and wasp larvae. The event was a resounding success, with 5 to 60+ year olds going outside of their culinary comfort zones. Although the type of people who chose to go to a hippie food festival may not represent the global attitude to eating insects, most left more open-minded and willing to eat them again. Extinguishing disgust: The same girl who refused to eat silk worms, happily cooking and eating them. The workshop really showed how readily the disgust can be extinguished, suggesting a promising future for edible insects in the West. It’s through education, increasing familiarity and incorporating bugs into gourmet cuisine that we can breakdown the association with disease and consequentially extinguishing feelings of disgust. If insects are indeed a solution to the impending food-pocolypse, then it’s critical that we break down the psychological barrier against entomophagy and begin to get on board with the food that others around the world have been enjoying for years!