Future protein stumbles over “disgust factor”

Insect protein is often talked up as “the protein of the future”, as part of the solution to problems ranging from climate change to obesity and malnutrition. Bugs and bug protein are popping up in bars, chips, biscuits and many other snacks, and regulatory approval is now in place in most major Western markets. However, industry enthusiasm and regulatory approval won’t grow the market without consumer acceptance – and a new study suggests this could be a challenge.

Researchers probed the “disgust factor” around foods like animal organs and insects among 603 UK adults who completed a Food Disgust Scale test. It concluded that insect protein is “generally unappealing” to consumers and a significant attitude change would be required before insects find their way onto British consumers’ plates.

Only 13% of respondents said they would be willing to regularly consume insects, compared to 47% who said they would not and 40% who responded “maybe” or “unsure”. People with higher sensitivity, i.e. a higher score on the Food Disgust test overall, were the least likely to try eating insects. Young consumers showed less willingness to consume insects than older consumers.

The ‘disgust factor’ is one of the most important barriers to overcome, according to the authors of the study. Taste and texture were the biggest hurdles, with respondents anticipating lower levels of enjoyment or sweetness and higher levels of saltiness and bitterness from insect foods.

Consumers were more open to eating insects in the form of a powder or flour, especially when included in familiar processed foods, indicating that there may be some opportunities in that space.

“This will likely take time to become a social norm where people accept that it is a normal and common thing to do,” concluded Dr Maxine Sharps, co-author of the study. “People may be willing to try little samples initially, but getting them to purchase these foods either at supermarkets or restaurants may be challenging.”  

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