Let's stop sensationalising insects as a source of future food

Instead, let's find a way to help everyday people engage.


There’s been constant chatter about insects as a source of future food for several years now, but no matter how much is said on the subject, it never really seems to click.

The Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations states that insects are a source of high quality protein, vitamins and amino acids for humans and other animals, the farming of insects leaving a much smaller imprint on the planet than that of the meat industry.

So it’s entirely a given that adopting insects as a sustainable addition to our diets would be a vast reduction of human impact on the multitudinous species with whom we share this Earth and its resources. No doubt.

Where the doubt creeps in, however, is in actually eating them. Lifting them to our mouths, and popping them in. Will they be crunchy? Or chewy? Are there bristles? And, worst of all… will anything… OOZE??

Of course, some more full-on foodies steeped in innovative modernist cuisine will take this ‘otherness’ in their stride. But my thoughts are with the everyday population  -  lunchboxes, family dinners and the like  - which is key to the concept kicking in.

It’s the initial fear of something ‘icky’, that in this era of endless choice, we haven’t really had to tackle in our contemporary Western culture - we have a lot to learn from our African, Asian and South American neighbours. But how do we get past the initial fear over here?

Stop being shocking.

We have a ‘shock and awe’ tendency these days - whether it be entertainment, hospitality or leisure sectors - designed to create hype and headlines for more clicks and viewers which in turn boosts sales and awareness.

And there is a place for absolute creativity and experimentation in cuisine and experiences, it’s what filters through the chain to liven up and improve our daily choices in a more down-to-earth way.

But shock and awe, applied in the wrong area, can at best achieve only short-term interest, and at worst cause irreversible damage to our psychological associations.

It can’t be ignored that highly-popular TV programmes such as I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here, or America’s Fear Factor, routinely used insects as an ordeal or punishment for participants, who screamed and shook their way through a creeping, crawling challenge.

With programmes like these, vast numbers of viewers watch through their fingers until they can take no more, laughing and crying in equal measure, of course connecting the crickets, mealworms, ants and beetles with the worst possible type of trauma, to be avoided at any cost.

And shock sticks. As a direct response to my mother’s actions from my early childhood, I still run miles from any wasp, regardless of the venue or event or my age and profession. I know several fully-grown people who call for reinforcements when they spot a spider in the room.

Yet, inspired by this level of high energy and emotion that the majority of us has cultivated, some of the first consumer brands to introduce insects as edibles have latched on to this approach, using vernacular like ‘survivor’ and ‘challenge’ and giving prizes to those who ‘dare’ to try. This does capture attention, and give a kind of fun flavour to the proceedings  -  something to talk about at the dinner table, for example, if you did it, and lived to tell the tale. But it reinforces that there is something to be fearful about; that there is a mental hurdle to overcome.

So, long-term, surely we should drop that association completely? If we really mean to integrate insects into the mainstream, we should be more about slow movements, calm encouragement, and focusing on the similarities, letting insects do what they do best, and creep into our cupboards.

Gently does it…

With a hardy outdoors, foraging culture, the Finnish have somewhat of a headstart on insects as edibles, and so have already done a fair bit towards making the concept of insects easier to digest. Finnish Bakery Fazer’s well-documented ‘Insect Bread’, for example, uses crickets ground into flour, sometimes with a little texture remaining for ‘crunch’. And it has gone down a treat up there, as, even with the Finnish population’s predisposition to embrace insects taken into account, it has made for a more ick-free introduction.

I have more confidence in this ingrained (excuse the pun) approach -  it could well be the most effective way for producers to introduce insects slowly, for long-term implementation. After all, isn’t ‘Insect Bread’, baked in the normal way, but using insect flour (insect content making up just 3% of the end weight), just… bread? Aren’t ‘Insect Meatballs’ with 20g of insect flour to 150g of kidney beans, alongside onion, garlic, eggs and breadcrumbs, just… Veggie Meatballs? Why draw so much attention to it? A little motif; a small symbol on the package. A ‘Sustainable Choice’ insect logo on the front. Just enough to infiltrate and inform without evoking the unnecessary emotions. For it’s when the word ‘insect’ is dropped, that we’ll know we’re making progress.

Ultimately, one day, insect-based ingredients will become a regular part of our diet. There will even be a day when we look back and can’t believe they weren’t. But the trick, surely, is to make it SO SUBTLE, that it will be impossible for us to remember when they first crept in.