For many cultural groups, insects are often not viewed as a desirable food group, but insects can be seen as delicacies in other populations.
Their acceptability in the broad context is slowly rising for multiple reasons. A recent study published in the Appetite Journal explores the rate of insect consumption in Hungary over the five years between 2016 and 2021.
Study: Insects as food - Changes in consumers’ acceptance of entomophagy in Hungary between 2016 and 2021. Image Credit: nicemyphoto/Shutterstock.com
Entomophagy, or the consumption of insects, is an unpopular practice in most parts of the world. However, for over 3,000 ethnic groups, it is a part of life, providing a rich source of protein, one of the essential macronutrients.
These groups belong mostly to Africa, Australia, Asia, and South America and account for over 2,000 species of insects known to be consumed by humans.
Overall, two billion people consume insects regularly the world over. The practice is rare in Europe, with just four insect-derived foods making it far past the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). These include the house cricket, the locust, and two mealworm species.
Despite the very low demand for such food within the European Union (EU), many more are undergoing evaluation. Most people think insects are harmful to health and unfit for consumption.
Others hate the idea, dislike trying unfamiliar foods, or have tried insects earlier and disliked it.
With the current rise in demand, animal meat and fish, though excellent protein sources are being produced in greater quantities. Their lifecycle is harmful to planet Earth, due to the high demand for land and water resources and the emission of greenhouse gases, during their production, from source to table.
This has led to a search for other protein-rich foods. Insects have 10-40% of their edible mass in the form of protein, comparable to the ~20% protein in animal and fish products.
The edible mass in insects often comprises a higher percentage of their total mass. It stands at 80% in crickets, for instance, compared to poultry or animal meat, ranging from 40-55%.
In addition, insect-derived food contains ten essential and semi-essential amino acids, which humans require from their diet, unable to synthesize naturally.
Insects also convert a significantly greater part of their food into edible body mass – the feed conversion ratio – making them a cost-effective species to raise. Feed quality is a relatively minor concern for insects, unlike other animals raised for food.
Lower production cost, lower greenhouse gas emissions, lower space requirements, less need for water, and rapid growth to maturity for food purposes, are among other factors that have led to the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) highlighting the potential of insects as a sustainable and nutritious food for humans.
Especially at times and places where ordinary foods are in short supply or food security is threatened, such out-of-the-box thinking could help save money on expensive protein sources while providing adequate nutrition within the budgetary resources of low-income countries, according to some scientists.
The cons of insects as food
Insect-derived foods may harbor toxins or pathogens, but these are mostly avoidable by providing clean and suitable food.
Unscrupulous suppliers may use human or animal waste as insect food for profit, thus promoting the contamination of the insect food with human pathogens. Of particular concern are sporogenic bacteria, which can survive ordinary heat sterilization methods.
This mandates heavy post-marketing surveillance and the ability to track such goods to the original supplier. In addition to biological toxins, chemicals such as heavy metals or pesticides may be present and must be tested for.
Finally, insect allergens may cause hypersensitivity among workers in insect processing facilities and consumers. Such allergies are more frequent in those sensitive to shellfish, snails (and related species), and mites.
Of course, insects are hard to tell apart once processed into protein or flour, making it easy to cheat consumers with unauthorized insects under the guise of those legally allowed to be sold as human food.
The current study sought to understand insects' place in the Hungarian diet.
What did the study show?
The researchers conducted two consumer surveys, first in April 2016 and then in April-July 2021. Both had approximately 1,000 participants. The cities included were mostly different in the two surveys, however.
The results of the surveys found that Hungarians were, by and large, unwilling to accept insects as food. No significant changes in preference occurred during this gap.
Less than 5% indicated they were ready to eat insect products, though the percentage rose marginally from 4.5% to 4.9% during the intervening five-year gap. Consumers who refused increased from 70% to 72.5% over the same period. Hesitant responders comprised 25% and 23% in 2016 and 2021, respectively.
None of these were statistically significant changes. This belies the marketing of insect food and feeds on a large scale, online, and high levels of media debate, increasing awareness of this source. Moreover, much business and research activity has been in Hungary since 2016, including conferences to promote insect-based foods.
In Hungary, people know about entomophagy and the benefits of insect consumption yet remain unwilling to adopt it. Multiple factors may be behind this attitude, such as Central Europe and Italy's deeply rooted food traditions, for instance, unlike the more plastic food cultures of Denmark or the Netherlands.
In the present study, people who always bought Hungarian products were most unwilling to consider insect-based foods.
Consumers who valued trustworthiness by brand or origin; domestic manufacture, especially if on a small scale; and food attributes like safety, quality, and absence of genetically modified organism (GMO) technology; were much more likely to reject insects as food.
Other characteristics, such as nutritional profile or environmental impact, were not linked to a preference for or against insect foods.
Some possible options to overcome the strong disgust of Hungarian consumers at the thought of eating insects could be to provide insects in processed form, such as flour or protein extract, or as animal feed.
Interestingly, despite the fact that chickens, for example, eat insects as part of their natural food, Hungarians rejected even insect-based animal feed.
Those who did accept entomophagy cited mostly the curiosity factor, a desire to eat more sustainably, or the high protein content of insects. This corroborates earlier studies that show these to be the major factors motivating insect consumption.
Among insect consumers, 7% of men vs. 3% of women fell into this group, indicating less neophobia and more adventurous tastes among men. The most open were men between 18 and 39 years, of whom half responded favorably.
Overall, about 10% of the survey sample indicated acceptance or ambivalence towards entomophagy.
In contrast, 90% of women over 60 rejected the idea, while about 30% of younger women with higher education tended to favor it. However, the latter comprised only 12 respondents.
What are the implications?
The study underlines the hurdles in introducing insects as human food in many European countries, even as manufacturers focus on their products' technical, cost-benefit, and consumer appeal aspects.
Plant foods were twice as likely to be substituted for animal-based protein, compared to insect foods, in a recent study.
The favorable responses should be interpreted correctly since the study looked only at...
...general perceptions about willingness to try [insect foods], which should not be concluded as a willingness for regular consumption."
To promote a shift away from animal foods, governmental and non-governmental initiatives will be required to facilitate the inclusion of insect-based products into widely accepted foods.
Events that allow hesitant consumers to taste such foods, marketing campaigns, and education of consumers, may play a part. Based on the results of the current study, such measures were not associated with a change in consumer attitudes towards insect-based foods.