Westerners have to overcome the “ick” factor before they will eat bug burgers

Life as Laboratory
Life as Laboratory

Swiss supermarket chain Coop will soon sell insect burgers and “meatballs” made from mealworm (beetle larvae), in a bid to save the environment.

Though initially only available in select branches, Coop plans to expand the insect-based product line to other stores by the end of the year, if customers take a liking to bug burgers. Essento, the startup behind the products, has been developing insect-based food for years, but couldn’t sell them until Swiss food safety laws changed in May. The mealworm patties will cost 8.95 francs ($9.24) for a pack of two, and Coop suggests eating them falafel-style, in pita bread with vegetables and yogurt sauce. According to insect-eating blog Bugible, mealworms have a mild flavor that becomes slightly nutty when roasted.

If taste alone doesn’t persuade customers, perhaps the other benefits of eating insects might. According to the United Nations, livestock uses around 30% (pdf) of the world’s ice-free landmass and produces 15% of all greenhouse-gas emissions. They also guzzle huge amounts of water and consume more than a third of all harvested grain. In a warming world, where land and water are increasingly scarce, relying on traditional animal-based food sources alone becomes less sustainable.

That’s why the search for alternative sources of protein has become more mainstream. Most attention has been on the likes of Beyond Meat, which sells its plant-based patties in select Whole Foods store across the US, Impossible Burgers, which reckons it can make up to 4 million meatless burgers a month, or even sexier ideas, such as growing meat from a petri-dish, as the team of Dutch scientists at Mosa Meats are doing.

Proponents of eating insects believe it’s only a matter of time before others come around to their thinking, helped in part by a 2013 UN report that raised the profile of bug protein by extolling its benefits to the masses. Around 2 billion people already eat insects worldwide. In addition to packing loads of protein into small frames, insects are very efficient at converting the food they eat: crickets need less than 10% of the feed of a cow per edible gram (pdf) to produce the same amount of protein.

Though people in places from Africa to Latin America and Asia are happy to munch on insects, and often consider them a treat, Westerners tend to find the idea hard to digest. That’s why most of the firms looking to tap into Western markets mostly stick to grinding up bugs into powders for use in baking, chips, and protein bars.

Essento is betting that people are more open to bug burgers than they think. Consumption of raw fish wasn’t always the norm in Western societies, after all. A study in 2015 found that the most likely early adopters of insects as food are younger males interested in the environmental impact of their culinary choices.

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