Nine billion. According to the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) that’ll be the world’s population in 2050. And the FAO’s worried. To feed everyone, they project we’d need to double — double — current food growing facilities. And solving that means, in part, casting hungry eyes at foodstuffs that have traditionally been unappetising to Western audiences.
Insects, according to an extensive report by the FAO, are readily available, cost-effective and easy to rear, have low environmental impact (they yield a whopping 12 times as much protein per kg of feed as beef), and are highly nutritious. They’re proven too: 2bn people around the world already eat any of 1,900 species of insect including wasp larva, mealworms and locusts.
As as a result, a small hive of startups and media are buzzing around insect foodstuffs: Fast Company estimates the market is worth $20m, with players like Six Foods, Ento and Bitty Foods emerging across the world. This year saw the inaugural Insects To Feed The World conference in Ede, Holland, attended by 450 experts from 45 countries in the field of entomophagy.
A tasty challenge
IDEO has a food studio in San Francisco devoted to new products, but it’s the publicity around the future of sustainable protein production that led to us eating crickets. Specifically, London-based industrial designer Ben Forman’s wife. After reading about insects as a food source, she wondered aloud whether IDEO could make bugs palatable, which led Ben to gather a small team in the studio, and set ourselves a three-day-long Design Boost (immediately dubbed the Bug Boost): how might we make insects appealing as a food stuff in the west? Could we make responsible consumption sexy, and widespread?
IDEO teams tackle problems, in part, by looking at them through the lenses of feasibility and viability. In terms of solutions for feeding the world, bugs fit both. And yet, they’re still insects. The other lens of that IDEO framework — and the most important — is desirability. And here’s where the problem lies.
Day one of the Bug Boost would explore reactions to eating insects, dig into feelings around disgust, and ways to overcome fear, concerns and learned behaviours. Day two would be brainstorming products, brands and packaging and building them, while day three would see us test prototypes with the studio, and iterate them based on feedback.
We came away better understanding people’s suspicion of new foods, the importance of naming and normalisation, how premium, provenance and production process affect perceptions, and what people are prepared to feed their kids.
Day one: Disgus-testing
Over the first day, Kate quizzed the studio about existing insect food products we’d bought. Reactions ranging from the curious, to outright revulsion.
Even among a group of open-minded Londoners, insects are seen as gross — they elicited shrieks among some people. Psychologically the smell of dessicated crickets was enough to put people off, let alone the sight and taste, which lingered and was off-putting to many.
Cleanliness turned out to be a big theme too: where did the creepy crawlies come from, what had they been fed on, and were they diseased? The distaste was heightened by wings, eyes and legs: anything, in short, that signalled insect-ness.
But it was relative, Kate found. Dried crickets aren’t easy identifiable, and so were more palatable than the blatantly ‘buggy’ locusts. Moreover we were surprised at how quickly people’s attitudes changed: what started out as a daunting dare quickly normalised to become no big deal.
Day two: Making a meal of it
The following day, faint bread-like smells started wafting through the studio, as Kate and interaction designer Miha baked the insights we’d gleaned into a bountiful, bug-filled menu of prototype snacks, drinks and cooking ingredients.
Four sacrificial concept areas emerged for testing: Ingredients, Superfoods, Premium and Kids Snacks. Communications designers Jesse and Jack, meanwhile, designed packaging and branding concepts — from exclusive to everyday, functional to fun — and presented in sachets, plastic bottles and glass jars.
Day three: After dinner conversation
What did the Bug Boost, and prototyping products teach us about people’s feelings about sustainable protein?
The biggest hurdle proved, simply: why eat bugs when we’re surrounded with such a huge selection of tasty, healthy, luxury or low-cost alternatives? Beyond that, early taste testing suggested that when eating identifiable insects, anything oily, overly crunchy or soft seemed disgusting. Sweet treats weren’t popular, due to their naturally savoury flavour, and texture-wise we struggled with making the snacks appetising — they were often dry, a little dusty, and mealy (although that might have been our cooking skills).
Coloured voting dots and conversations with the studio revealed that defying modern food trends around transparency and unprocessed products, people favoured products where the insects were hidden — cricket flour, for example. Healthy kid’s variants proved popular, as did functional foods like our Pro10 powder.
‘Luxury’ dishes, those with clear provenance and pedigree, or those that heroed the insect, received a polarising response — popular with a few, but not all. New ingredients like Gugua were intriguing, but people weren’t sure how and what exactly to cook with them.
Overall, insects remained a novelty rather than something we’d take home and start cooking with. Despite revealing some intriguing avenues to explore, the Bug Boost suggested that this emerging industry is still searching for an answer to the question of desirability.
The California Roll effect
A few days after the Design Boost, I was having lunch with my girlfriend on London’s Southbank at a busy fast-casual Mexican restaurant chain called Wahaca. As we sat down, a cheery waitress ran us through the menu and specials. One immediately struck me: ‘Chapulines Fundido, Mexican crickets cooked with onions and chillies to create a nutty salsa, smothered with melted cheese.’ How many people order the special, I asked the waitress out of curiosity. About a third, she replied, confidently.
So far in the West cultural discomfort with insects and no pressing need for them in our diet has relegated them to the novelty, and the niche: the really adventurous cook, or the imaginative sustainability advocate. But social attitudes to food change: consider the now-luxurious lobster, once a food for the poor in the 1800s.
More recently, sushi has performed a similar shift, which some in the entomophagy industry attribute to one, unlikely champion. Introduced in the US in the 1970s and made of avocado rather than tuna, this innocuous handful eased the eating of raw fish — formerly disgusting to American palettes — into the mainstream. “The California Roll can be thought of as a culinary Trojan Horse,” explains Exo’s co-CEO Greg Sewitz. Decades later, Exo and its competitors are searching for their own California Roll.