Consumers are more willing to eat insects if they are informed about the sustainable and circular benefits of doing so. It makes no difference whether or not someone is already concerned about sustainability. This was the conclusion reached by researchers from Wageningen in a recent study on the relation between accepting insects as part of a meal and the extent to which consumers find sustainability important.
It is not so strange that insects are gradually being considered as a future source of food. Compared to livestock farming, an insect farm requires far less water and land and the emissions of greenhouse gasses and ammonia are also substantially lower. In addition, a major circular benefit of insects is that they convert organic by-products and waste streams into animal protein extremely efficiently. “As such, insect production fits well into the circular economy,” says researcher Hans Dagevos of Wageningen Economic Research. “We wanted to know if this idea of circularity would contribute to making consumers more willing to accept insects as food.”
The study consisted of a questionnaire with statements about sustainability and eating insects. The participants were then given a menu with 18 products based on insects, ranging from burgers, wraps and nuggets to ice cream, shakes and muffins. The participants were asked to indicate how likely they would be to order each product.
Sustainability-conscious consumer not extra sensitive
Many studies of consumer behaviour show that existing concerns about the environment are usually not enough to actually change consumer choices. According to Dagevos, this study seems to nuance that a bit. “Providing information about the circular and environmental benefits of insects as a food source increased the participants’ intention to choose fast-food products with insects as an ingredient. This was even true for products with a visible insect garnish, although the increase for these products was the smallest.” And even though insects are considered a circular and sustainable food source, the sustainability-conscious consumer was, remarkably, not extra sensitive to eating such food compared to the consumer for whom sustainability is less of a priority. “Although we didn’t specifically study this, you can’t just assume that the frontrunners in consuming insect products are the ones who are the most concerned about the environment.”
The researchers also studied the impact of insect phobia. Striking: the greater the fear of insects, the greater the increase in intention to purchase after having been informed about the circular benefits of insect food. Moreover, an aversion to eating insects did not appear to affect changes in the intention to purchase after participants had been informed about the sustainability benefits of insects. Less surprising is the conclusion that the intention to purchase increases as the insects are more hidden, such as when they are part of the flour in the sandwich or used as food for the chicken used in a product. An insect burger with a garnish of mealworm clearly scored less well.
The researchers also observed a difference between women and men. The increase in the intention to purchase after having received information was bigger among women than among men. A similar difference was also observed between older and younger participants: after having received information, older participants were more likely to buy an insect product than younger participants.
Insects need to become mainstream
Insects as a source of food or fodder fit into a circular economy and are potentially a good alternative for animal products with a large ecological footprint. As this study shows, the acceptance of insect products increases as consumers are better informed about sustainability and circularity. However, Dagevos does not think that information alone is enough to convince the Dutch to eat an insect burger or shake. “It’s also important that more attractive and tasty insect products become available to consumers. To make this happen, insects must first truly become mainstream in supermarkets and in our eating culture. At the moment, there are hardly any insect products for sale, so we do not have the opportunity to get to know them, acquire taste experiences and use them in the kitchen. The better their availability, the more we’ll accept and use them.”