Spotlight

Why insects are not the new sushi

5 October 2018

The idea is that eating insects is somewhat like eating sushi: you just need to taste it and then you’ll come to like it. But it’s not as simple as that according to sociologist Jonas House from Wageningen University & Research. Our willingness to try new flavours and ingredients depends on more than just availability.

People across the world have been eating insects for thousands of years. We know that approximately 2,000 species are edible and that these insects are eaten in many different ways. The exception to this is the Western world, where insects are not a traditional food. This may be attributed to the fact that merely two per cent of edible insects occur naturally in Europe in comparison to the larger variety available in Asia, Africa and South America.

“Eating insects cannot simply be integrated into existing food practices.”

Jonas House, sociologist at Wageningen University & Research

Food security

Insects as food became a much-discussed topic around the world when the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) of the United Nations published the report Edible Insects: Future Prospects for Food and Feed Security by Wageningen University & Research (WUR) insect expert Arnold van Huis et al. in 2013 which drew considerable media attention. A few years prior to this, insects had already been identified as a new sustainable source of protein for food and animal feeds in the Netherlands in the context of research regarding food security. In the FAO report, the scientists explain the facts regarding the eating and farming of insects. By clarifying the misconceptions about insects, they hoped to make a positive contribution to the development of the sector.

The combination of expertise from WUR and contacts in the business community quickly resulted in the founding of an association for Dutch insect farmers (VENIK). Four varieties of edible insects were marketed: mealworms and buffalo worms, house crickets and grasshoppers.

Novel food

Despite the extensive publicity and efforts, people are not lining up to eat insects. It turned out not to be ‘the new sushi’ as many had expected it to be. After all, sushi was also once considered novel food and has since become widely accepted. To discover the reason for this, sociologist and social geographer Jonas House from WUR analysed why sushi gained a foothold in the USA in the 1960s, long before its introduction in the Netherlands. He compared the acceptance of sushi there with the introduction of edible insects in the Netherlands. House is interested in changes in diet, which factors lead to the successful introduction of new foods and what makes people consider something to be edible.

The role of Japanese restaurants

The introduction of sushi in the USA happened via Japanese restaurants. The restaurants created sushi bars that were also found in Japan. Here you’d sit on high bar stools and watch as the chef created small, artistic dishes; a concept that was entirely new to the country. The restaurants simply bought the ingredients at the wholesale, while the chefs were flown in.

This was a time when going out to eat became more popular. Japanese businessmen took their Western colleagues to taste these exquisite dishes and, as many Hollywood films were being filmed in Japan, the jet set also became familiar with the food. According to House, this also imbued sushi with a symbolic meaning as being something authentic that you could use to distinguish yourself. This is exactly what the metropolitan elite did and this, in turn, led to the anchoring of sushi in Western society.

Have you eaten insects outside of Europe and would you like to eat them at home too? Let us know by responding at the bottom of the blog.

Farmability

Up until now, the introduction of insects in the Netherlands has not met with the same success. There are no foreigners who are introducing eating insects as part of their own food culture and no African or Asian restaurants which are putting insects on their menu.

Eating insectsIn the Netherlands, the first insects to be brought onto the market were easy to farm and had already been used as animal feed. This was followed by the development of products and recipes to encourage their consumption. Insects are being processed in hamburgers which are marketed as substitutes for meat. However, these are more expensive than vegetarian burgers and don’t taste all that different while there tends to be an air of secrecy around it reminiscent of the adding of horse meat to beef sausages. They are also sold freeze-dried, which is unique to the Netherlands, and sold predominantly online. This is more common for food in the Netherlands but not so for speciality shops.

Not distinctive enough

So what it is about insects that sets them apart? ‘The how, what, where and why of food influences what we eat. Firstly, there is no history of eating insects and secondly people didn’t introduce the practice in the Netherlands,’ explains House. ‘If you then hide insects in food like hamburgers, it simply becomes yet another alternative for beef. They’re not distinctive enough in terms of taste or appearance. The insect products available in the Netherlands have little exceptional taste or appearance which means that it lacks a trendy image or status as a delicacy; they simply don’t have the wow-factor. They lack an authentic cuisine.’

Simply being available in supermarkets might lend them the label of being edible, but that doesn’t automatically mean that people will start eating it regularly. Stinging nettles and ground elder are also edible, yet people aren’t going out en masse to harvest them.

Flavour

According to House, if you want to successfully introduce a new type of food, you should not focus on removing barriers, the rational resistance, such as the yuck-factor for insects. The low level of acceptance for insects as food is not the result of a cultural barrier. After all, we started eating sushi. ‘If the flavour of the food is not deciding, it’s likely to fail.’

‘To try and make something new like edible insects acceptable, you need to focus on their preparation, on the culinary element. Food is essentially about how tasty it is, so the flavour and appearance needs to be good. This was the same for the introduction of sugar and tea, where pioneers prepared the way for the masses.’

InsectSpace symposium

The InsectSpace 2018 symposium is taking place in Wageningen on 10 October. House is one of the speakers who will talk about the why and how of eating insects. The symposium is part of the fourth edition of the Dutch Agri Food Week (#DAFW18) with activities organised across the Netherlands between 5 and 16 October.

Further reading

Do you have any questions or comments? Go into conversation below.

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Jonas House

Jonas House · Sociologist at Wageningen University & Research

House is a lecturer in the chair group Sociology of consumers and households at Wageningen University & Research. He became interested in the consumption of insects following the reports in the media in 2013 in response to the FAO report about edible insects and, as a result, conducted his first research into the cultural aspects of eating insects.

There are 15 comments.

  1. By: Jutta Wirth · 07-10-2018 at 08:31

    Very interestin vieuws ! Nice to read about this developments and trends and acceptence! Do you know anything about in vitro Lab Hamburger of Marc Post and eating behaviour?

  2. Jonas House

    Thanks Jutta! I don’t know much about in vitro meat myself, but there’s a fairly comprehensive (open access) paper about it available here: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0924224417303400. The paper gives an overview of recent research on in vitro meat, and contains some information about consumer acceptance.

  3. By: Michiel De Mylle · 08-10-2018 at 09:13

    I would have no problem eating them.

  4. By: Monique Tulp · 08-10-2018 at 12:45

    Dear Jonas, interesting article. Are you aware of the Summer School Insect for Food and Feed (courseleader Arnold van Huis) ? In June 2019 Wageningen Academy organises this summer school for the 2nd time. The first edition was joined by almost 40 participants from 17 countries. Maybe you can add the link of the #SSIFF2019 to the Further readings section: https://www.wur.nl/en/Education-Programmes/wageningen-academy-1/What-we-offer-you/Courses/Plant/show/Summer-School-Insects-as-Food-and-Feed-from-producing-to-consuming-.htm

    1. Jonas House

      Thanks Monique – I wasn’t aware of the Summer School, it sounds great. The link has been added to the further readings above.

  5. By: Stella Pennell · 08-10-2018 at 13:47

    Hi Jonas,
    Interesting article! In New Zealand there is an annual ‘wild food’ festival held in the South Island town of Hokitika. While not solely insects, a number of insect dishes are served including the native huhu grub, earthworms, snails, cockroaches etc. The festival is pretty popular ( it’s been going for about 30 years I think). But while a lot of people will try eating insects for the yuck or wow factor, they’re not ‘mainstream’.

    1. Jonas House

      Hi Stella, thanks very much for your response. I have heard of this festival actually, it sounds like quite an experience! As you suggest, it seems events like this are probably related with ‘wow factor’ food consumption, rather than representing an opportunity for their mainstream introduction. But still fascinating to think about what people are willing to try, under the right circumstances.

  6. By: Oscar · 08-10-2018 at 15:56

    Great article. I’m interesting on insects trends food. Would you mind recommend additionals articles or web side to looking for

    1. Jonas House

      Many thanks Oscar. You might want to try the recent book by Afton Halloran and colleagues called ‘Edible Insects in Sustainable Food Systems’ (available here). That has some chapters about how insects could be positioned as a ‘superfood’, or a new ‘foodie craze’.

  7. By: Stacie · 08-10-2018 at 19:51

    I cook and bake with cricket powder all the time. I add it into my morning smoothie and use it in all my favourite foods as a wonderful protein alternative and a natural, bioavailable way to get my B12, iron, calcium, and so many more nutrients. The fact that it tastes great, is so versatile from a culinary perspective and is healthy for me and for the planet makes it a no-brainer.

  8. By: Dr. Aaron T. Dossey · 08-10-2018 at 20:37

    Poor literature review. Didn’t cite the top book in this field:

    Insects as Sustainable Food Ingredients :
    https://www.elsevier.com/books/insects-as-sustainable-food-ingredients/dossey/978-0-12-802856-8

  9. By: Syafik Ashar · 09-10-2018 at 07:07

    Very interesting

  10. By: Benoit Daoust · 05-11-2018 at 20:35

    Ok I can agree that insects are not the new sushi, people don’t eat sushi because it’s healthy or good for the planet. I would love to see insects compared to tofu instead, which was not that much popular at first but has grown into mainstream here in Canada. They both are good for your health, are a good meat substitute, and often times don’t taste of much exept for what you cook it with.

  11. By: Minna Santaoja · 06-11-2018 at 09:14

    Hi,
    greetings from Finland. Here’s a big entomophagy hype going on at the moment, a few years later here in the North as usual 🙂 The marketing tactic seems dual, bugs are both “hidden” in products and marketed visibly as such. A cook book was just published (in Finnish, https://like.fi/kirjat/hyonteiskokki/), and several former pig farmers are starting production of crickets.

    What might distinguish the introduction of bugs from sushi is timing. In Finland, there is also a big vegetarian/vegan boom going on and lots of new plant-based groceries are being introduced. Insects are not exactly plants, even if in Finland the promoters have tried to introduce a contradictory term “entovegan” and are marketing the products mainly to vegetarians – supposedly people who are more adventurous with their diet. But this undermines the key reason for which entomophagy is advocated: it being ethical and ecological. If it does not substitute other animal protein but comes on top of it, it’s not really that ecological. And people are increasingly interested in animal welfare and rights, even if our empathy still rarely reaches all the way to insects 🙂

    As part of an ongoing research on sustainable diets (http://sustainablediets.fi/en/), we wrote a piece with a colleague on the ethics, ecology and aesthetics of eating insects, unfortunately so far only in Finnish (http://netn.fi/sites/www.netn.fi/files/netn183-12.pdf), wondering why in the Finnish public discussion the insects are not discussed as animals hardly at all, but rather as biomass, ingredients etc.

    My colleagues have actually visited Wagningen, and maybe we can exchange some ideas in the future.

  12. By: Raymond · 08-11-2018 at 00:01

    Recently I have visited a company in the Netherlands and the idea of insects for human consumption fascinated me and it also made me wonder why human consumption is quite an issue here. The foodmarket is very sensitive for superfoods and in my opinion insects fit in. It’s just that we don’t know about eating insects like most Dutch wouldn’t even consider eating snails. Something that’s common in France. People should be educated at school, the health benefits and the impact on nature. The government also has a role, there should be so much more stimulation. Thank you for the great article Jonas.

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