Would You Like Flies With That?

New research suggests obfuscation may be the best way to get Westerners to eat insect-based foods.
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Fried insects in Thailand. (Photo: Richard Allaway/Flickr)

Fried insects in Thailand. (Photo: Richard Allaway/Flickr)

How can we feed an ever-growing population? We've known for a while now about one potential solution—a source of nutritious protein that's eco-friendly and sustainable.

The problem is, when people—especially in the West—learn that a dish contains this ingredient, they tend to put down their forks and reach for the Raid.

That's right: It's edible insects, which, as we have reported, could play a huge role in mitigating humans' negative impact on the natural environment. Unfortunately, most people (outside of those from a few specific cultures) find the idea too repellant to even consider.

The situation calls for creative marketing. And new research points to some basic guidelines food processors and restaurant owners can use to help overcome customers' resistance to bug-based cuisine.

With a smart marketing campaign, the phrase "insect bites" could take on a whole new meaning.

Its main conclusion: Go for abstract images on packages, and vague descriptions on menus.

Writing in the journal Psychology and Marketing, researchers led by the University of Massachusetts–Amherst's Melissa Baker explored our hesitance in thinking of insects as a food source, where that hesitancy stems from, and how it might be overridden.

The first of their studies focused on the packaging of such products in retail stores. The participants—221 residents of the Unites States, recruited online—were presented with one of four labels for a spice mix made with insects.

On two of the labels, the product was called "Giant Waterbug Asian Spice Mix;" on the other two, the insect's formal name was used: "Nepomorpha Asian Spice Mix." Two versions featured a recognizable image of a water bug, while the others utilized an abstract shape.

In addition to indicating whether they would consider buying the spice mix, participants filled out a survey designed to measure what specific risks they felt the product posed.

A second, similar study (with 200 participants) compared different versions of a menu that featured the dish "Southeast Asian Fried Rice" and listed its main ingredient as either "mealworm" or "molitor" (the formal name for the larval form of the mealworm beetle). Some saw a photo depicting the dish, while others did not.

The studies produced two main conclusions. The first, and arguably more obvious, is that an explicit depiction of an insect is a turn-off. In the case of the spice mix, the package's image of a water beetle, which featured antennae and legs that clearly indicated "bug," had a strong negative impact on consumers' reactions.

That was far less true of the photo of the stir-fry dish, where the mealworms (mixed in with the zucchini and peas) were not readily identifiable as insects. In that case, including the name "mealworm" produced the more pronounced negative reactions.

"Marketers of edible insect-containing food products may want to indicate product ingredients in a more ambiguous way," the researchers write, "so that it reduced risk perceptions and does not diminish purchasing behavior."

The second finding shows the disinclination to purchase such products is driven by two specific types of perceived risks: functional risk (that is, fear I won't like the taste); and psychological risk (eating insects may not be consistent with my self-image).

This information provides marketers with an obvious place to start: They need to convince people that insect-based foods can be delicious, while somehow changing their image so that eating them becomes "cool."

Challenging goals, but not unreachable. Environmentally friendly behavior is a priority among many young Westerners, and there's no reason eating insect-based foods couldn't be folded into that category.

Who knows? With a smart marketing campaign, the phrase "insect bites" could take on a whole new meaning.

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Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.

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