Last week, students of the Food Culture Course conducted fieldwork on how people relate to the eating of insects or insect protein. To our surprise, many more respondents were open to the idea of eating insects or food with insect protein than expected. As I wrote earlier, insects are generally not seen as part of the category ‘food’ in Western societies. Hence, putting forward the option of eating insects to people who never considered this as a food item can instigate a disgust reaction which in turn can be seen to illustrate an unconscious taboo.
Disgust, as we learned from Rozin and Fallon has its roots in our mind, in wider ideas connected to the item which lead to the assumption that therefore the item will taste bad/is dangerous/should be avoided. Disgust can be observed by the facial expression of people as well as by choking or vomiting reactions. It is often impossible for a disgusted person to tell the precise reason for the disgust reaction, other than that the ‘idea’ is not right.
Students did find disgusted reactions in people’s facial expressions and in the difficulty people had to reason about what made it disgusting. However, 60% of the 111 (mainly student-)respondents were found to be open to the eating of insects, or insect protein in processed food. In their reports, students concluded that this high willingness to try may be related to that we are in Wageningen (not a ‘normal’ place), in 2006 briefly ‘City of Insects’ with also currently lots of research on insect protein and a student population who is exposed to the ‘life science’ issues in current debates.
Awareness of environmental degradation related to meat production and future scarcity of animal protein were among the often mentioned reasons why many student-respondents were open to the idea of eating insects. Those who expressed disgust had some typical reactions close to what was described in the literature for this week. For example, the problem of categorisation which Mary Douglas writes about. Is an insect indeed an animal and hence meat? Or where does it belong in the food categories we routinely employ? Confusion over categorisation – insects as anomaly not fitting a particular category – was mentioned alongside disgusted reactions of those respondents.
Also the ‘law of sympathetic magic’ may have played a role in people’s disgust reactions, which means that an item is contaminated by negative associations. For example (some) insects sit on manure, therefore insects are dirty and cannot be eaten. No real conclusions can be drawn on such a small and specific interview-population, however, given the surprising openness, we may once belong to the 3000 ethnic groups in 113 countries all over the world who regard insects as delicacies.