A squirmy, slimy, crunchy new potential staple of the American diet

In a Q&A, psychologist Paul Rozin explains why insects are a great food source and how we can move beyond the ick factor associated with eating them.

Eating Bugs
Psychologist Paul Rozin thinks insects should be the next big food group in the U.S. All it takes, he suggests, is a little more exposure to move beyond the disgust factor.

If you dropped a sterilized cockroach into a glass of apple juice and then removed the insect, Paul Rozin would probably drink the juice. 

Rozin has been studying the emotion of disgust for decades, focusing mainly on disgust around food.
Rozin has been studying the emotion of disgust for decades, focusing mainly on disgust around food. He himself has tried some eight different insect types. Photo by Scott Spitzer.

After all, in its sterilized state, the cockroach presents none of health risks posed by an individual of the same species found, say, festering in a city’s sewer. Yet according to decades of research from this University of Pennsylvania psychology professor, the mere fact that the bug touched the juice would prevent most people from letting the liquid pass their lips. 

Rozin studies the psychology behind the emotion of disgust, generally, but also as it relates to food. Some of his recent work has focused on insects and why we really should be eating them. They’re abundant, nutritious, and relatively easy to breed in natural settings. Plus, unlike with cows, pigs, sheep, and chickens, insects don’t live all that long, with new generations born in weeks rather than months or years. 

The biggest challenge, however, remains convincing Americans that eating bugs isn’t, in a word, gross. Penn Today talked with Rozin about how to get beyond the ick factor, as well as how bugs taste, and why this abundant food source should become a new staple. 

Let’s start with disgust. Why do you study this?

Disgust is the strongest reaction people have to food. It’s really powerful, so powerful that if something disgusting touches what you’re about to eat, it renders that food inedible. Say your favorite food is on a plate and a cockroach crawls over it. That’s the end of it. 

Why do we have this big reaction?

Well, almost all animal foods are disgusting. If you think about Americans, we eat just three mammals. There are exceptions of course, but almost everybody eats cows, pigs, and lamb. We’re eating three out of roughly 4,000 types of mammals, and then we typically eat only the muscle. Other cultures eat more, but we don’t tend to eat the kidneys or liver or brain. We’re eating a tiny percent of the available animal foods. So, the real question is not why are animals disgusting, but why have we decided that the muscles of three are not only not disgusting, but delicious? 

Where do insects fit into this scenario?

There are roughly 1 million insect species, and there are a lot of insects. The weight of insects in the world is way more than the weight of humans. We consider almost all of the many animal species disgusting, so in some sense, there is nothing special about insects, and they’re a potentially great food source for humans. 

Can you explain that? Why could they become a major food source?

Several reasons. They’re easy to breed under natural conditions. You don’t have to put animals in cages because in a relatively small space, you can breed insects naturally. They have short lifespans, not like cows. They’re easy to farm—though almost nobody does—and the cruelty issue is not there. People don’t seem to mind killing insects, as most have already killed their fair share. 

The second thing is that insects are nutritious. They’re low in carbohydrates and high in protein and fat. And they don’t make methane, which is a pollutant produced by mammal foods. I’d say that’s a pretty good start. As far as I know, nobody has bred insects to be better for humans, meaning having more protein and less chitin, which is their hard, outside covering. But you could. One could imagine fatter, bigger, tastier insects. 

Speaking of taste, what exactly do bugs taste like?

Most insects don’t have a strong taste. It’s a mild taste, a little bit nutty. I’ve eaten maybe eight types of insects. I didn’t find any of them bad tasting, but they weren’t delicious. They weren’t chocolate, and they certainly weren’t meat. Texture is a really interesting part of insects, too. Crickets are really crispy and have the appeal of potato chips. The larvae are softer, without the hard shell, and this texture can be appealing, depending on the recipe. The texture itself should not be a barrier. Instead, it could be an asset. 

It sounds convincing, but you’re still talking about insects. How can you persuade Americans to move beyond their gut reaction, so to speak?

One way is to hide insects in food people really like. They won’t make much difference in the taste and the food will be more nutritious, because something like cricket flour is more nutritious than the wheat flour it replaces. The other is to make the insects themselves delicious. The Nordic Food Lab in Denmark has been working explicitly on making delicious insect recipes, and some of the top restaurants in the world now serve insects on the menu. 

Generally, how can we overcome disgust?

The simplest technique is exposure in a positive context, with other people around you enjoying it. People begin eating “disgusting” things like sushi and raw meat basically by being coaxed by others they like and respect. Almost every culture eats something rotted, which has a decay smell. For us, it’s cheese but wine is, you know, rotted grapes. In southeast Asia, it’s fish sauce. With insects, it isn’t the taste but rather your knowledge that something is an insect. But you can get used to that, too. 

Start by making the contact with the disgusting entity less direct. That’s something I’m working on right now with Jennifer Higa, who’s a Penn junior. We’re assessing the value of using black soldier fly larva as a human food, but, instead of getting people to eat the larva themselves, the idea is that edible animals like fish or chickens eat the flies, and then people knowingly eat those specific fish and chickens. That’s more acceptable, at least initially, than convincing people to eat the larva directly. 

By now you’ve eaten quite a few insects, both as research and because they pique your culinary curiosity. How do others react?

I went to a meeting in the Netherlands about insect-eating to give a talk. People who manufacture insect products were there exhibiting, so I bought a few items, one of which was a peanut-butter sized bottle of dried crickets. I also got silkworm larvae marinated in soy sauce, and I had both with me when I went through customs in the United States. The customs form asks, “Do you have any animal products with you?” and I did, so I said “Yes.” The customs agents pulled me aside and asked me to show them the animal products. I pointed to the two jars, and I explained that the animals were insects, at which point they looked at me funny, had me open the jars, and then let me continue on. But let me tell you, this was the hit of the day. They couldn’t believe anyone was bringing insects into the U.S. to eat.

Paul Rozin is a professor in the Department of Psychology in the School of Arts and Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania