Attitudes to sushi are good predictors of people’s willingness to chow down on insects, researchers have found.
In many developing countries, various insects already comprise important food sources, but, increasingly, species such as crickets and mealworms are being regarded as potentially important protein sources in industrialised nations.
Edible insects, in general terms, are nutritious, and can be farmed using methods that are – at least compared to those used to raise cattle and sheep – low impact and energy efficient.
Embracing the idea of putting arthropods on the menu – or, ground up into flour, in the bread – faces a number of attitudinal hurdles in cultures where insect-eating is not historically sanctioned. One of these, disgust, correlates strongly with willingness to eat raw fish.
Sushi, write researchers Matthew Ruby from Australia’s La Trobe University and Paul Rozin from the University of Pennsylvania in the US, is “a food commonly met with disgust when it was first introduced [to American diners]”.
Today, they note in a paper published in the journal Food Quality and Preference, the US sports almost 4000 sushi restaurants and the dish “has become a very popular food”.
Ruby and Rozin used the comparison to sushi-eating in a study that investigated attitudes to consuming insects in two very different cultures: the US and India. To do so, they recruited 306 people from the US and 386 from India through Amazon’s Mechanical Turk platform, and quizzed them any experiences they might have had consuming insects, their general food preferences, religious beliefs, attitudes towards animal welfare and several other measures.
The headline finding was “that Americans are more accepting of insects as a potential food than Indians, and that men are more accepting than women”.
Just over 80% of the American surveyed said they would consider eating insects as a protein source, either whole or ground up. Among the Indian cohort, only 34% said they would eat whole insects, with 48% in favour of insect flour.
On gender division, 90% of American men were in favour of eating insects, compared to 75% of women. In India, the difference was 37% and 22%.
In both countries notions of disgust – modified by personal sushi experience – was the strongest predictor of willingness to eat insects.
However, from there the attitudes of the two nations diverged sharply.
“There was a major cultural difference, with 4% of Americans and 26% of Indians indicating that insect consumption violated a protected value,” the researchers write.
“Insect consumption appears to touch on moral issues much more for Indians than Americans, as suggested by the fact that religiosity predicted insect acceptance in India and not in the USA. Many Hindus are vegetarian for religious reasons, and insects may be considered in the domain of animals that are prohibited as food.”
On their last point, the researchers wonder – in the absence of specific research – whether vegetarians from other backgrounds might be persuaded to eat insects. This could be the case, they suggest, for vegetarians who adopt the diet because of objections to animal suffering.
However, they warn, such easy reasoning may not hold up, and might actually result in an outcome that is morally – and physically – even less acceptable.
“The linkage between insect acceptance and moral vegetarianism also deserves further study, including lay beliefs of whether insects feel pain,” they conclude.
“Indeed, the general lack of moral objection to raising insects for food is predicated on the belief that they do not suffer in the process; if this is untrue, then raising insects for food rather than larger invertebrates may actually increase overall suffering, given the much larger number of insects required to make one kilogram of food.”
Andrew Masterson is a former editor of Cosmos.
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