EATING INSECTS could offer huge benefits for food security, but how will firms overcome the ick factor? Brand expert Imogen Birt reports.
About 80% of the world’s nations already enjoy eating insects but it’s yet to take off in Western markets. Some companies are starting to raise the profile of entomophagy, but none have managed to break into the mainstream.
Exo and Chapul are part of a growing band of crowdsourced cricket flour and insect-based protein bar manufacturers, targeting the niche audience of CrossFitters, bodybuilders and extreme paleo-dieters.
However, this is fuel, not food. These bars and ingredients also follow the visual cues and codes of mainstream protein bars where the ingredients and flavours are less important than the potential physical result. The consumer benefits of gluten-free, no soy, grain-free and dairy-free, combined with the high protein, make them very functional. The bars attempt to make you forget that you’re eating insects – something that the vast majority of consumers aren’t ready to try, let alone having it brought to their attention.
Wahaca took a more foodie approach to trying to hide the insect source of its experimental Chapulines fundido in 2013. Its solution to the ick factor was to smother the grasshoppers in cheese, hiding much of the insects’ texture and flavour rather than making them the hero of the dish. This highlighted the perceived challenge of the dish and the underlying assumption that consumers will not enjoy the grasshoppers. Unsurprisingly, this dish has not remained on the menu.
There are limits to making insects appealing as a novelty challenge or functional foodstuff. Instead, some are treating them as premium ingredients. At the extreme end is the Nordic Food Lab, which uses insects with pride rather than apologetically. It feels people should eat insects because they are delicious in their own right, and focuses on exploring the potential of the ingredient and making it desirable. Its recent product launch in collaboration with the Cambridge Distillery, Anty Gin, contains “the essence of approximately 62 wood ants” in every bottle. At £200 a bottle in a 99-bottle run, it’s a premium, limited edition offering.
A move from Planet Organic in the UK shows further signs of the market changing. It teamed up with Grub to become the first store to sell edible insects as an ingredient rather than a novelty item. This is a positive approach which again makes no attempt to hide the insects; rather the retailer highlights their versatility, taste and nutritional punch. The focus on desirability from a taste and experience perspective is a sign that some consumers’ perception is slowly changing.
Desirability often seems forgotten when trying to market more sustainable products and services. The assumption that consumers will buy products based on a more sustainable story is true for only a minority of your potential audience. To capture the wider audience, brands need to delight and excite consumers rather than try to educate them, especially – as with eating insects – where psychological barriers exist.
One report suggested that the market for insects in Europe could hit £230m by 2020, though there are legislative as well as branding challenges to iron out first. No brand or product has yet managed to strike the right balance between consumer benefits and consumer appeal for the wider Western market. But this is unlikely to stop more foodservice and retail brands having a go.