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Why Aren't Insects on the Menu in Western Cultures?

Peoples’ food preferences are influenced by cultural history, experience, and adaptation, but entomophagy in the Western world is also a matter of education.

Eating Insects: The Dichotomy of Consumer Acceptability

There are two distinct psychological reactions to insects as a food source for humans. In countries
where entomophagy is the norm, insects are seen as a valued protein source; knowledge on which species are edible is considered local wisdom passed down between generations. Conversely, in Western cultures, insects can invoke visceral negative reactions. Deeply embedded in the Western psyche is a view of insects as dirty, disgusting and dangerous.

The consumption of edible insects started nearly 7000 years ago. More than 2300 species have been reported as edible insects. These insects inhabit in both aquatic and terrestrial environments. The majority of them are harvested from nature though some species are farmed in a large scale.

Culturally and religiously, entomophagy is particularly popular in tropical and subtropical regions due to the warm and moist climate. Tropical insects are generally large in size with stable life history, which can facilitate harvesting. The immature forms of insects (pupae and larvae) are preferred for their abundant amino acids and fatty acids, which not only ensure the nutritional value, but also provide a unique and splendid flavor.

Many people from developed areas find it hard to take insects as food, but they are just uncomfortable with the original appearance of insects. Street foods containing entomic components have been developed recently, which are generally made of the mixture of crushed mealworms and flour. The products taste like insects but are presented in the shape of snacks that people are familiar with (e.g. chips).

The Yuck Factor of Eating Insects

The view in Western societies of insects as inedible is perpetuated through TV shows such as Fear Factor, where contestants are forced to eat raw insects to advance in the competition and show their daring.

woman hesitating to eat bugOne study reported that in Western societies, only about 13 percent of men and 6 percent of women were likely to eat insects as a meat substitute. This is the major hurdle of how to increase acceptance of entomophagy in Western cultures.

Interestingly enough, the 6 billion people who are not fond of insects, are insect-eaters too, albeit unknowing ones, at the tune of “two pounds of flies, maggots and other bugs each year.” Even more fascinating is that we are actually eating them as part of lunch and dinner or drink with beer (hops may contain up to 2500 greenflies or blackflies per 10g). Read more about the bugs in our everyday food in our blog post “You have been eating insects all your life“.

Even if they aren’t ingredients, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) permits a certain amount of insects in food products because it’s practically impossible to keep them completely out. The FDA’s Food Defect Levels Handbook outlines the permissible amount of bugs (and other natural contaminants) allowed in food.

Here are some examples:

  • Ground allspice may contain an average of less than 30 insect fragments per 10 grams
  • Canned berries an average of up to 3 larvae per 500g or an average of less than 10 whole insects per 500g
  • Pasta may contain an average of 224 insect fragments per 225 grams
  • A cup of raisins can have 34 fruit fly eggs or 9 whole insects; and
  • Peanut butter is allowed to contain an average of 29 insect fragments per 100 grams
  • Given that wheat flour may contain up to 75 insect fragments per 50 grams, you might be unwittingly eating insect parts with your bread and pastry

While these levels represent limits and the actual amount consumed is probably lower, on average an individual probably ingests about one to two pounds of flies, maggots and other bugs each year without even knowing it.

six foods that contain insects

If ethical or religious objections are extracted, what would bug a person about eating insects? For starters, it’s just that terms like “bug” and “pest” have made insects synonymous with nuisance and not something to be dined on. According to the report, if people could get past its yuck factor, entomophagy could be a more sustainable protein for the planet and its population.

Think about it: Thirty years ago, sushi was the eww factor; you did not see sushi in grocery stores. Now it’s the cultural norm.

For many Westerners, insects are associated with filth – they go dirty places. Funnily enough though, so do mushrooms, and we eat those all the time. And you don’t want to know about crabs and shrimp and lobster. They are, like insects, arthropods – but instead of eating fresh lettuces and flowers, as many insects do (more than half of all insect species are plant eaters), they scavenge debris from the ocean floor. But while lobster is a high-priced delicacy, vegetarian bugs and critter are spurned and disdained.

shellfishSome object to the form in which insects are presented – entire – though lobsters, mussels, oysters, clams come to the table intact.

Morphology might be at the root of the problem, however. Processing insects is labor-intensive, and they are not exactly filling. One would have to eat about a thousand grasshoppers to equal the amount of protein in a twelve-ounce steak. Unlike those found in the tropics, European bugs do not grow big enough in the wild to make good food, so there is no culinary tradition, and therefore no infrastructure, to support the practice.