Negative attitudes toward invertebrates are a deep-seated, visceral response among Western peoples. These internalized aversions toward insects and other terrestrial arthropods, both in general and specifically as a food source, subtly and systemically contribute to unsustainable global foodways. Insect cuisine is, for Westerners, emblematic of the alien, a threat to our psychological and cultural identity. Yet failure to embrace entomophagy prevents us from seeing the full humanity of those of other classes, races, and cultures, and leads to agricultural and food policy decisions that fail in their objectives to improve nourishment for all people. Key to enabling the world’s peoples to live sustainably with the land are: (1) awareness of the psychological and cultural barriers to a more insect-positive perspective (2) embracing insects as a desirable food resource, (3) understanding the processes by which those barriers are constructed, their negative consequences, and (4) identifying strategies for transforming our attitudes.
This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Price includes VAT for USA
Subscribe to journal
Immediate online access to all issues from 2019. Subscription will auto renew annually.
This is the net price. Taxes to be calculated in checkout.
Although wild foods are a “significant portion of the total food basket for households from agricultural, hunter, gatherer and forager systems,” they are typically undervalued and often threatened by development processes (Bharucha and Pretty 2010, p. 2922). Such losses are not an isolated event, nor limited to less developed countries, as two other insect examples show. The decline of grasshopper species also occurred when unregulated insecticides were commonly applied to paddy fields in Japan (Mitsuhashi 2003) and South Korea (Pemberton and Lee 1996). Once regulations were established, a small commercial edible insect market returned.
We described this and other stories involving the complex dietary challenges that edible insects pose in greater detail in Wood and Looy 2000.
Most Western nations are societies consisting of a number of cultural groups. Our focus is on cultures of European derivation, what we call in this paper “Western.” We also use the words “we” and “our” in this paper to refer to Western people because the authors of this paper are all of Western society and are speaking to a primarily Western audience.
It is estimated that there are over 2,000 species of edible insects alone (van Huis 2013). To distinguish them from other edible invertebrates we use the term “insects” throughout this paper in its general sense to refer to groups of species such as true bugs, beetles, and termites as well as lifeforms such as grubs, caterpillars, and maggots.
We note, citing Morris (2004), that “as with other ‘cultures’ Western attitudes towards insects are diverse, complex and multifaceted.”.
Pasteur published theories about germs as the source of disease beginning only 25 years earlier, and Carlos Finlay first proposed mosquitoes as a carrier of yellow fever in 1881. Bilewicz et al. (2011) assert that anti-insect bias is located in the Enlightenment. Morris (2004) says that this reading of history is likely “simplistic” and the roots are more complex. The food histories we have consulted seldom mention edible insects, covering only their products such as honey (Wood and Looy 2000).
The use and regulation of pesticides, their continuing efficacy, and the desirability (or not) of alternative agricultural systems (multi-cropping, inter-cropping, etc.) are related issues. However, here we simply point to the need for maintaining knowledge of and capacity for the utilization of wild foods alongside the development of contemporary agriculture (e.g., Bharucha and Pretty 2010).
Apart from unpleasant tastes, there are no universal elicitors of disgust except perhaps feces, and even feces disgust is learned (Rozin and Fallon 1987). Learning which objects, events, and acts engender disgust is a complex process involving personal and cultural values, beliefs, norms, and practices (Bilewicz et al. 2011; Haidt 1997).
Interestingly, lobster was considered a “low-class food” up through the early 1800 s (Wallace 2007) fit for prisoners, and then only in limited quantities.
The ever popular science fiction and horror film genres have reinforced the idea of insects as either the enemy in nature or the agent of destruction, often at the tampering hand of some misguided scientist (Berenbaum 1995). Andrew Nikiforuk develops (and challenges) this theme in his chapter “The War Against the Insect Enemy” (2011).
Escamoles are a traditional dish of the Aztecs and are still considered a delicacy in Central Mexico, sometimes referred to as ‘insect caviar’ and served in fine restaurants in Mexico City. They are ant larvae, have a slightly nutty flavor, and are served alone or in omelets or tacos. Nsenene is the local name for a type of grasshopper known to North Americans as the katydid, and is a popular delicacy and economic resource in Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania. They are usually fried, sometimes with onions, and eaten warm or cold.
Adolphs, R., and A.R. Damasio. 2001. The interaction of affect and cognition: A neurobiological perspective. In Handbook of affect and social cognition, ed. J.P. Forgas, 27–49. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publishers.
Aldridge, V., T.M. Dovey, and J.C.G. Halford. 2009. The role of familiarity in dietary development. Developmental Review 29: 32–44.
Barker, L.M. 1982. The psychobiology of human food selection. Westport, CT: AVI Publishing Company.
Belasco, W. 1997. Food, morality, and social reform. In Morality and health, ed. A.M. Brandt, and P. Rozin, 185–199. New York: Routledge.
Bennett, I.M., and W.S. Zeleznik. 1991. Assumption validity in human optimal foraging: The Bari hunters of Venezuela as a test case. Human Ecology 19: 499–508.
Berenbaum, M.R. 1995. Bugs in the system. New York, NY: Basic Books.
Berry, W. 2000. Life is a miracle. New York, NY: Counterpoint.
Berry, W. 2009. Bringing it to the table: On farming and food. Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint.
Bharucha, Z., and J. Pretty. 2010. The roles and values of wild foods in agricultural systems. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B 365: 2913–2926.
Bilewicz, M., R. Imhoff, and M. Drogosz. 2011. The humanity of what we eat: Conceptions of human uniqueness among vegetarians and omnivores. European Journal of Social Psychology 41(2): 201–209.
Bukkens, S.G.F. 1997. The nutritional value of edible insects. Ecology of Food and Nutrition 36: 287–319.
Burger, J.M., H. Bell, K. Harvey, J. Johnson, C. Stewart, K. Dorian, and M. Swedroe. 2010. Nutritious or delicious? The effect of descriptive norm information on food choice. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology 29: 228–242.
Burris, C.T., and J.K. Rempel. 2004. “It’s the end of the world as we know it”: Threat and the spatial-symbolic self. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 86: 19–42.
Clark, M.E. 1995. Changes in Euro-American values needed for sustainability. Journal of Social Issues 51: 63–82.
Conner, M., S. Hugh-Jones, and C. Berg. 2011. Using the two-factor theory of planned behaviour to predict adolescent breakfast choices. Educational & Child Psychology 28: 37–50.
Damasio, A.R. 1995. Descartes’ error: Emotion, reason, and the human brain. New York, NY: HarperPerennial.
de Garine, I. 1997. Food preferences and taste in an African perspective: A word of caution. In Food preferences and taste: Continuity and change, ed. H. MacBeth, 187–207. Providence, RI: Berghahn Books.
DeFoliart, G.R. 1995. Edible insects as minilivestock. Biodiversity and Conservation 4: 306–321.
DeFoliart, G.R. 1999. Insects as food: Why the Western attitude is important. Annual Review of Entomology 44: 21–50.
DeFoliart, G.R. 2012. Insects as a global food resource: The history of talking about it at the University of Wisconsin. http://labs.russell.wisc.edu/insectsasfood/files/2012/09/Manuscript.pdf. Accessed 17 May 2013.
DeFoliart, G., F.V. Dunkel, and D. Gracer. 2009. Chronicle of a changing culture: The food insects newsletter. Salt Lake City, UT: Aardvark Publishing Company.
Dennis, M. 2009. Insects are food: Entomophagy is the future. http://www.insectsarefood.com/what_is_entomophagy.html. Accessed 17 May 2013.
Devine, G.J., and M.J. Furlong. 2007. Insecticide use: Contexts and ecological consequences. Agriculture and Human Values 24: 281–306.
Diamond, J. 1992. The third chimpanzee. New York, NY: HarperCollins.
Douglas, M. 1966. Purity and danger: An analysis of the concepts of pollution and taboo. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
Douglas, M. 1972. Deciphering a meal. Daedalus 101: 61–81.
Dunkel, F.V. 2013. The food insects newsletter. http://www.foodinsectsnewsletter.org/. Accessed 22 May 2013.
Durst, P.B., D.V. Johnson, R.N. Leslie, and K. Shono. 2010. Forest insects as food: Humans bite back. Workshop on Asia-Pacific resources and their potential for development. Chiang Mai, Thailand: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
Dzamba, J. 2010. Third millennium farming (3MF): Is it time for another farming revolution?. Toronto: Faculty of Architecture, University of Toronto.
Eidelson, R.J., S.Soldz, and L.M. Saffiotti. 2011. Introduction. Peace Review 23: 1–3.
Fallon, A.E., and P.Rozin. 1983. The psychological bases of food rejections by humans. Ecology of Food and Nutrition 13: 15–26.
FAO. 2011. The state of food insecurity in the world. http://www.fao.org/publications/sofi/en/. Accessed 17 May 2013.
Forsyth, A. 1994. Creepy cuisine. Equinox: The magazine of Canadian discovery. 76(July/Aug): 63–66.
Franklin, A., and R. White. 2001. Animals and modernity: Changing human-animal relations, 1949–98. Journal of Sociology 37: 219–238.
Freidberg, S.E. 2004. French beans and food scares: Culture and commerce in an anxious age. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Gahukar, R.T. 2012. Entomophagy can support rural livelihood in India. Current Science 103: 10.
Galloway, A., L. Fiorito, L. Francis, and L. Birch. 2006. “Finish your soup”: Counterproductive effects of pressuring children to eat on intake and affect. Appetite 46: 318–323.
George, S. 1990. Ill fares the land. London: Penguin.
Ghaly, A.E. 2009. The use of insects as human food in Zambia. Journal of Biological Sciences 9: 93–104.
Gondo, T., P. Frost, W. Kozanayi, J. Stack, and M. Mushongahande. 2010. Linking knowledge and practice: Assessing options for sustainable use of mopane worms (Imbrasia belina) in southern Zimbabwe. Journal of Sustainable Development in Africa 12: 127–145.
Gordon, D.G. 1998. The eat-a-bug cookbook. Berkeley, CA: Ten Speed Press.
Gracer, D. 2009. Small stock foods. http://www.smallstockfoods.com/. Accessed 17 May 2013.
Greenwald, A., D.E. McGhee, and J.K. Schwartz. 1998. Measuring individual differences in implicit cognition: The implicit association test. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 74: 1464–1480.
Gurung, A.B. 2003. Insects—a mistake in God’s creation? Tharu farmers’ perception and knowledge of insects: A case study of Gobardiha Village Development Committee, Dang-Deukhuri, Nepal. Agriculture & Human Values 20: 337–370.
Haidt, J. 1997. Body, psyche, and culture: The relationship between disgust and morality. Psychology and Developing Societies 9: 107–131.
Haidt, J., S.H. Koller, and M.G. Dias. 1993. Affect, culture, and morality, or is it wrong to eat your dog? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 65: 613–628.
Haidt, J., C. McCauley, and P. Rozin. 1994. Individual differences in sensitivity to disgust: A scale sampling seven domains of disgust elicitors. Personality and Individual Differences 16: 701–713.
Harris, M. 1985. The sacred cow and the abominable pig. New York, NY: Touchstone.
Haslam, N. 2006. Dehumanization: An integrative review. Personality and Social Psychology Review 10: 252–264.
Holt, V.M. 1885/1967. Why not eat insects? Hampton, UK: E.W. Classey Ltd.
Illgner, P., and E. Nel. 2000. The geography of edible insects in sub-Saharan Africa: A study of the mopane caterpillar. The Geographical Journal 166: 336–351.
Kellert, S.R. 1993. Values and perceptions of invertebrates. Conservation Biology: The Journal of the Society for Conservation Biology 7: 845–855.
Kitayama, S., and J. Park. 2010. Cultural neuroscience of the self: Understanding the social grounding of the brain. Social Cognitive & Affective Neuroscience 5: 111–129.
Krebs, J.R. 2009. The gourmet ape: Evolution and human food preferences. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 90(supplement): 707–711.
Lally, P., N. Bartle, and J. Wardle. 2011. Social norms and diet in adolescents. Appetite 57: 623–627.
Lappé, F.M., and J. Collins. 1986. World hunger: Twelve myths. New York, NY: First Grove Press.
Larson, N., and M. Story. 2009. A review of environmental influences on food choices. Annals of Behavioral Medicine 38: S56–S73.
Loewen, R., and P. Pliner. 1999. Effects of prior exposure to palatable and unpalatable novel foods on children’s willingness to taste other novel foods. Appetite 32: 351–366.
Looy, H., and J.R. Wood. 2006. Attitudes toward invertebrates: Are educational “bug banquets” effective? Journal of Environmental Education 37: 37–48.
McKenzie-Mohr, D., and S. Oskamp. 1995. Psychology and sustainability: An introduction. Journal of Social Issues 51: 1–14.
Meigs, A.S. 1984. Food, sex, and pollution: A New Guinea religion. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
Menzel, P., and F. D’Aluisio. 1998. Man eating bugs: The art and science of eating insects. Berkeley, CA: Ten Speed Press.
Messer, E. 1984. Anthropological perspectives on diet. Annual Review of Anthropology 13: 205–249.
Messer, E. 2007. Food definitions and boundaries: Eating constraints and human identities. In Consuming the inedible: Neglected dimensions of food choice, ed. J. MacClancy, J. Henry, and H. Macbeth, 53–65. New York, NY: Berghahn Books.
Meyer-Rochow, V.B. 1973. Edible insects in three different ethnic groups of Papua and New Guinea. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 26: 673–677.
Meyer-Rochow, V.B. 2009. Food taboos. Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine 5: 18–28.
Millar, M.G., and K.U. Millar. 1990. Attitude change as a function of attitude type and argument type. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 59: 217–228.
Milton, K., C.D. Knight, and I. Crowe. 1991. Comparative aspects of diet in Amazonian forest-dwellers. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B 334: 253–263.
Mitsuhashi, J. 2003. Traditional entomophagy and medicinal use of insects in Japan. In Les “insects” dans la tradition orale: “Insects” in Orla Literature and Traditions, ed. E. Motte-Florac, and J.M.C. Thomas, 357–365. Paris: Peeters, SELAF.
Morris, B. 2004. Insects and human life. Oxford: Berg.
Morris, B. 2008. Insects as food among hunter-gatherers. Anthropology Today 24: 6–8.
Nemeroff, C., and P. Rozin. 1989. “You are what you eat”: Applying the demand-free “impressions” technique to an unacknowledged belief. Ethos 17: 50–69.
Nikiforuk, A. 2011. Empire of the beetle. Vancouver, BC: Greystone Books.
Öhman, A. 1986. Face the beast and fear the face: Animal and social fears as prototypes for evolutionary analyses of emotion. Psychophysiology 23: 123–145.
Paoletti, M.G., ed. 2005. Ecological implications of minilivestock: Potential of insects, rodents, frogs and snails. Enfield, NH: Science Publishers.
Paoletti, M.G., and A.L. Dreon. 2005. Minilivestock, environment, sustainability, and local knowledge disappearance. In Ecological implications of minilivestock: Potential of insects, rodents, frogs, and snails, ed. M.G. Paoletti, 1–18. Enfield, NH: Science Publishers.
Patrick, H., T. Nicklas, S. Hughes, and M. Morales. 2005. The benefits of authoritative feeding style: Caregiver feeding styles and children’s food consumption patterns. Appetite 44: 243–249.
Pemberton, R.W., and N. Sook Lee. 1996. Wild food plants in South Korea: Market presence, new crops, and exports to the United States. Economic Botany 50: 57–70.
Petty, R.E., D.T. Wegener, and L.R. Fabrigar. 1997. Attitudes and attitude change. Annual Review of Psychology 48: 609–647.
Pliner, P. 1982. The effects of mere exposure on liking for edible substances. Appetite 3: 283–290.
Pliner, P., L. Lahteenmaki, and H. Tuorila. 1998. Correlates of human food neophobia. Appetite 30: 93.
Pliner, P., and N. Mann. 2004. Influence of social norms and palatability on amount consumed and food choice. Appetite 42: 227–237.
Pollan, M. 2006. The omnivore’s dilemma: A natural history of four meals. New York, NY: Penguin.
Pollan, M. 2009. In defense of food: An eater’s manifesto. New York, NY: Penguin.
Pyke, M. 1968. Food and society. London: Murray.
Quinn, C. 2007. The raw deal. Food Manufacture 82: 33.
Ramos-Elorduy, J. 1998. Creepy-crawly cuisine: The gourmet guide to edible insects. Rochester, VT: Park Street Press.
Ramos-Elorduy, J. 2009. Anthropo-entomophagy: Cultures, evolution and sustainability. Entomological Research 39: 271–288.
Raubenheimer, D., and J.M. Rothman. 2013. Nutritional ecology of entomophagy in humans and other primates. Annual Review of Entomology 58: 141–160.
Rivage-Seul, P. 2011. Jamie Oliver’s food revolution. Journal of Appalachian Studies 17: 283–285.
Rozin, P. 1990. Development in the food domain. Developmental Psychology 26: 555–562.
Rozin, P. 1996. Towards a psychology of food and eating: From motivation to module to model to marker, morality, meaning, and metaphor. Current Directions in Psychological Science 5: 18–24.
Rozin, P., and A.E. Fallon. 1987. A perspective on disgust. Psychological Review 94: 23–41.
Schiefenhövel, W., and P. Blum. 2007. Insects: Forgotten and rediscovered as food. In Consuming the inedible: Neglected dimensions of food choice, ed. J. MacClancy, J. Henry, and H. Macbeth, 163–176. New York, NY: Berghahn Books.
Schlosser, E. 2001. Fast food nation. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.
Schut, M. 2010. Food and faith: Justice, joy and daily bread. New York: Morehouse Publishing.
Sileshi, G.W., and M. Kenis. 2010. Food security: Farming insects. Science 328: 568.
Smith, A., and J.B. Mackinnon. 2007. The 100-mile diet: A year of local eating. Toronto: Vintage.
Steiner, J.E. 1979. Human facial expressions in response to taste and smell stimulation. Advances in Child Development and Behavior 13: 257–295.
Steuter, E. 2010. ‘The vermin have struck again’: Dehumanizing the enemy in post 9/11 media representations. Media, War and Conflict 3: 152–167.
Steuter, E., and D. Wills. 2009. Discourses of dehumanization: Enemy construction and Canadian media complicity in framing the war on terror. Global Media Journal Canadian Edition 2: 7–24.
Stiles, K., Ö. Altıok, and M.M. Bell. 2011. The ghosts of taste: Food and the cultural politics of authenticity. Agriculture and Human Values 28: 225–236.
Ulrich, R.S. 1993. Biophilia, biophobia, and natural landscapes. In The biophilia hypothesis, ed. S.R. Kellert, and E.O. Wilson. Washington, D.C.: Island Press.
van Huis, A. 2013. Potential of insects as food and feed in assuring food security. Annual Review of Entomology 58: 563–583.
Verkerk, M.C., J. Tramper, J.C.M. van Trijp, and D.E. Martens. 2007. Insect cells for human food. Biotechnology Advances 25: 198–202.
Wallace, D.F. 2007. Consider the lobster and other essays. New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company.
Wilson, E.O. 1987. The little things that run the world (The importance and conservation of invertebrates). Conservation Biology 1: 344–346.
Wood, J.R., and H. Looy. 2000. My ant is coming to dinner: Culture, disgust, and dietary challenges. Proteus: A Journal of Ideas 17: 52–56.
Wood, W. 2000. Attitude change: Persuasion and social influence. Annual Review of Psychology 51: 539–570.
Woodward, D.R., J.A. Boon, F.J. Cumming, and P.J. Ball. 1996. Adolescents’ reported usage of selected foods in relation to their perceptions and social norms for those foods. Appetite 27: 109–117.
Yau, R. 2010. MiniLivestock: Food of the past, present & future. http://minilivestock.org/. Accessed 17 May 2013.
Yen, A.L. 2009a. Edible insects: Traditional knowledge or western phobia? Entomological Research 39: 289–298.
Yen, A.L. 2009b. Entomophagy and insect conservation: Some thoughts for digestion. Journal of Insect Conservation 13: 667–670.
Young, E.M. 1999. Far-fetched meals and indigestible discourses: Reflections on ethics, globalisation, hunger and sustainable development. Ethics, Place and Environment 2: 19–40.
About this article
Cite this article
Looy, H., Dunkel, F.V. & Wood, J.R. How then shall we eat? Insect-eating attitudes and sustainable foodways. Agric Hum Values 31, 131–141 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10460-013-9450-x
- Edible insects
- Attitude change