Volume 42, June 2015, Pages 78–89

Insects as food: Exploring cultural exposure and individual experience as determinants of acceptance

  • a Food Quality and Design, Wageningen University, P.O. Box 17, 6700AA Wageningen, The Netherlands
  • b Marketing and Consumer Behaviour, Wageningen University, P.O. Box 8130, 6700EW Wageningen, The Netherlands
  • c Department of Food Technology and Nutrition, Faculty of Natural Resources and Agro-Industry, Kasetsart University, Chalermphrakiat Sakon Nakhon Province Campus, 59 Moo 1 Sakon Nakhon-Nakhonphranom Road, Moung District, Sakon Nakhon Province 47000, Thailand
  • d Human Nutrition, Wageningen University, P.O. Box 8129, 6700EV Wageningen, The Netherlands
  • e Consumer Science & Intelligent Systems, Wageningen UR Food and Biobased Research, P.O. Box 17, 6700AA Wageningen, The Netherlands

Highlights

Cultural exposure determines which items individuals recognise as food.

Familiar foods are evaluated based on memories of the taste experience.

Unfamiliar foods are evaluated based on visual features and item associations.

Preparation method influences the willingness to try unfamiliar food items.

Curious trying and regular eating are driven by different motivations.


Abstract

Edible insects have attracted much Western interest in recent years due to their nutritional and environmental advantages. Consumers, however, remain aversive towards a class of items that is not traditionally considered to be food. While the focus is often on the Western disgust, looking at consumer perceptions in a culture that considers insects to be delicious could provide new insights into the psychological and cultural mechanisms that underpin these evaluations. This cross-cultural qualitative study explores how cultural exposure and individual experience contribute towards the contrasting evaluations of insects as food by those who do and do not eat them. Eight focus groups were conducted across two cultures—four in Thailand where insects are part of the local food culture, and four in the Netherlands where insects are generally not recognised as food. Within these cultures, two groups consisted of individuals who have experience with eating insects, and two groups consisted of individuals with little or no experience with insects as food. Cultural exposure created expectations of which species were more appropriate to eat and how they should be prepared, whereas individual experiences determined whether judgements were made based on memories of past eating experiences or based on the visual properties and item associations. This study provides insights into the acceptance and rejection factors of unfamiliar food items and identifies the factors to be considered when introducing novel food items that are not yet culturally acceptable as food.

Keywords

  • Edible insects;
  • Unfamiliar food;
  • Cultural expectations;
  • Food appropriateness;
  • Food rejection

1. Introduction

Edible insects have gained much Western interest in recent years. This is due to their rich content of high quality protein and sustainability of their production in comparison to that of traditional sources of meat (Bukkens, 1997 and van Huis, 2013). Yet despite much public interest in these potential benefits, most consumers in the West are still not keen on eating insects. They often react with disgust at the prospect of consuming creatures that are not familiar as food (DeFoliart, 1992 and Yen, 2009), but are familiar as pests and transmitters of disease (Harris, 1985, chap. 8). This is in contrast with the attitudes in cultures where a variety of insect species are considered to be traditional delicacies (Hanboonsong, 2010 and Ramos-Elorduy, 1997).

The importance of examining the psychological and cultural dimensions underlying attitudes towards eating insects has been emphasized before (Looy, Dunkel, & Wood, 2014), but most research to date has neglected these dimensions by largely focussing on the negative Western perception and how to overcome it (Caparros Megido et al., 2014, DeFoliart, 1992 and Yen, 2009). There is a lack of cross-cultural research for understanding the similarities and differences in perceptions and acceptance of insects as food. Through a qualitative research approach, the present paper aims to provide new insights on the acceptance or rejection of insects as food by exploring consumer perceptions and acceptance of edible insects across two countries where cultural exposure and individual experience with insects as food are very different.

When one looks at foods that are eaten around the world, the diversity shows that ‘food’ is not just for nourishment and neither is a nourishing substance necessarily ‘food’ (Fessler and Navarrete, 2003 and Meyer-Rochow, 2009). Research on food rejection has emphasized the physical nature of the food item and their meanings and functionalities for a particular cultural group (Fessler and Navarrete, 2003, Martins and Pliner, 2006, Meyer-Rochow, 2009, Rozin and Fallon, 1980 and Turmo, 2009). Surveys within a cultural group have shown strong findings on the tendency to avoid foods such as viscera and insects due to aversive textural properties and animal associations (Martins & Pliner, 2006). Little attention, however, has been devoted to why people in other cultures do like to eat these foods in spite of their properties.

Many psychological and biological factors govern food preferences and aversions, but while there are certain predispositions, food likes and dislikes are mostly acquired through experience (Rozin & Vollmecke, 1986). Similarly for insects, there is no evidence of an innate aversion (Bodenheimer, 1951). Individuals learn through experience which foods are appropriate to eat and how they are appropriately eaten (Cardello & Schutz, 1996). Children are taught at a young age what not to eat (Rozin & Vollmecke, 1986), and at the same time also learn to like specific foods through mere exposure and social learning (Nicklaus & Issanchou, 2006). This suggests that both cultural exposure and individual experience would play an important role, where locals learn from a young age to accept foods that are available in their culture.

Food choice usually takes place within a range of familiar foods (Prescott, 1998), where taste satisfaction is a key driver for food choice (Roininen et al., 1999 and Tepper and Trail, 1998). However, prior experience is also a pre-requisite for the formation of sensory preferences (Einstein & Hornstein, 1970). When prior experience is absent, the willingness to try is often dependent on the level of interest and disgust rather than on the expected experience of the sensory properties (Martins & Pliner, 2005). We posit that the positive and negative evaluations of insects as food could be explained by the different levels of individual experience with eating insects, as prior experience is known to play an important role in how products are perceived, due to the moderating effect of knowledge on how stimuli are interpreted and evaluated (Banović et al., 2012, Olson, 1978, Peracchio and Tybout, 1996 and Steenkamp, 1990).

Prior to tasting, consumers make inferences about a product’s properties based on their knowledge and form certain product beliefs based on the observed stimuli (Kardes, Posavac, & Cronley, 2004). Consumers, however, draw different inferences according to their familiarity with the products, where high levels of experience with eating a product result in inferences that predict the actual sensory properties more accurately, and low levels of experience result in less relevant inferences being drawn (Alba and Hutchinson, 1987 and Dick et al., 1990). Yet, consumers tend to act according to their beliefs about a food item regardless of whether they reflect the actual sensory experience (Steenkamp, 1990). Food could thus be rejected on the basis of inaccurate presumptions of bad taste (Rozin and Fallon, 1980 and Rozin and Fallon, 1987), often resulting in the rejection of items that evoke disgust before it is even tasted (Rozin & Fallon, 1987). This is especially relevant in the case of insects where negative associations are prevalent.