Dr Ophelia Deroy, associate director of the Institute of Philosophy and researcher at the Centre for the Study of the Senses, talks about her research around people’s reluctance to eat insects, which she has been working on in association with food visionary, Ben Reade and Charles Spence, Oxford University’s professor of experimental psychologist.

What made you interested in how people perceive eating insects? Have you worked in that area before?

The first motivation was probably frustration! The topic of eating insects is so fascinating, with half of the world finding them delicious and the rest repulsed by them. Yet, at the moment, most of what is published about insects as a food source ignores the matter of taste, and focuses on environmental concern. We know that people don’t follow dietary guidelines on packaging unless they have a background motivation to do so – so why would they follow the recommendations emanating from a distant UN or EU committee to eat more insects?

The idea of studying the topic further came after an animated discussion with my colleague Charles Spence, head of the Crossmodal Research Laboratory at the University of Oxford and chef Bean Reade, who at the time was head of culinary research at Copenhagen’s Nordic Food Lab, which supports Noma (one of the world’s best restaurants). Ben had just returned from a trip to Africa and while he was describing a dish with termites and sauce that he had tried, I noticed the other people around the table were all licking their lips in anticipation of pleasure. Not at all the disgusted face that researchers traditionally associate with the idea of eating insects.

We went on to discuss how the arguments for accepting insects as a nutritious food source was on the wrong track. Ask people to respond to cold questionnaires about whether they will be ready to eat insects, and they will say no! Integrate insects into a cleverly prepared dish, tell them about the ingredients – not just the insects, but the whole dish – and they will start to be interested. And it turns out that insects were once consumed in Europe. But with the rise of farming, and the accessibility of cheap abundant proteins, we just turned to meat.

Why have previous efforts to encourage Westerners to eat insects fallen short?

That is simple. Generally speaking, people eat the foods they like, not the foods that they should. So, it is fundamental to turn insects into a food they like, instead of telling them they should. Research shows that being normative and telling children what they should eat is not a solution. Why should it work any better with adults?

We also see another real problem with the current proposals to persuade people to accept more and more insect matter (powder, flour) being added to their well-known, and loved, cookies and bread. In recent years, there has been a huge crisis of confidence in the food system – think about mad cow disease in the l980s, and the more recent horsemeat scandal for instance, or fears surrounding GM foods. Telling consumers that the food industry will have license to add ‘insect matter’ to their products has all the reasons to make them worried and sceptical. What is insect matter? Which insects? How were they grown? Food is a question of taste, but also of trust.

What changes or plans do you propose that would help Europeans and Americans come to enjoy insects in their diet?

Why not treat consumers as real adults? There is a lot of interest in new foods, even challenging ones. People are curious to experiment with their palates, tell their friends about their culinary adventures and discoveries, including through Instagram and sharing pictures. We should give them the opportunity to experiment with insects – different ones, in different preparations and contexts. Perhaps someone will like grasshoppers grilled with chili, and you will prefer them in a smoothie, with almond milk, green tea and apple. We know that food preferences are a question of expectations and familiarity; my research also insists on the importance of context. The same sentence does not mean the same thing in different contexts – this is the same for objects of perception and evaluation. Finding the right presentations, the right textures, the familiar recipes in which local insects could be integrated, needs experimentation in the kitchen, in the psychology lab to test people’s preferences. Raising people’s interest and enjoyment needs research like the studies we do – oriented towards people, and not just economic/rational arguments.

Why does it matter if we eat insects or not?

Of course, as a society, we are hugely sympathetic to the idea that we should eat less meat. It’s not great for health, not great for the planet, and it is also getting more and more expensive. So it matters that we find ways to diversify our sources of proteins. And insects are not just ‘a source of protein’, they are also a great source of good fats, and come with a large variety of flavours. However, it is important to note that eating insects that would be farmed industrially, or imported from long distances by road, air for sea, will not make them such a great help for the environment. We can do better with local insects – and our studies suggest that people will be more likely to try a bee-ice cream from their local honey producer, than a stick of grilled scorpion.

In our latest paper, we also insist on a global challenge. The consumption of insects in communities where it used to be the norm (or a desired delicacy even!) is decreasing as new generations are turning to Western foods and consumption habits – eating like Westerners is aspirational. There’s still time to turn the tide and make the eating of local insects something again desirable for everyone, and not just become another new fad in the west. This we believe will inspire new generations of chefs and local farmers in places including Africa, Asia, Australia and South America.

How does this connect to your other research projects?

My research bears on what I like to call ‘horizontal’ influences. It is not purely background expectations, which are seen as ‘top-down’ factors modulating perception, but information provided by your other modalities about the wider scene or context in which you perceive or evaluate an object. Most of current models still focus on the perception of a single object, by one or sometimes two modalities. How we deal with the plurality of objects, and whether we can understand it with the same rigor as single objects, is what fascinates me.

Can you explain what the impact of this is?

Like in the case of insect consumption, the contextual aspect of perception and evaluation is of huge relevance to a variety of actors outside academia. Besides my collaborations with the Fat Duck [Heston Blumenthal’s celebrated restaurant] and Ben Reade, I am currently working with the Tate Galleries to find better ways to use the audio guides to ‘frame’ the experience of a painting, and how to use background sounds to change people’s perception of their own bodies, or even lower their feeling of pain. I am also working with artists….but I can’t talk about the results before the work is done! In all cases, the idea is to use the congruence between the background information and what your attention is focused on to improve perception, evaluation and emotions.

Do these collaborations feed back into your own research?

Scientists and researchers are not the only ones to explore the world by asking questions and conducting experiments. Artists, policymakers and practitioners are doing it as well. We are now learning more and more about how we can contribute to one another’s thinking and findings with deeper forms of collaboration. When the works or techniques of an artist for instance contribute to science, and the science moves on, it can lead to new artistic forms. This repeated cycle is a departure from what has gone before – it is a new phase. All my collaborations are based on the conviction that my research interests and the other’s projects illuminate one another’s ways of understanding a phenomenon, and expand techniques and practice in a mutually beneficial way.

Dr Deroy’s arguments about the need to consider people’s rejection of novel foods as a case of acquired distaste, rather than of negative representations, have proved popular with the US and European media. For example, Nature, the international weekly journal of science, has published a feature on her research and the Washington Post article, ‘Here’s how to talk people into eating more bugs’, which quotes her extensively, has been picked up by many US public radio stations including: New England Public Radio, High Plains Public Radio and Alaska Public Media.


Image: Kucharski K. Kucharska / Shutterstock.com