When hit TV show I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here! first aired in the UK in 2002, viewers were repulsed by the Bushtucker Trial, which saw contestants attempt to eat all manner of seemingly inedible bugs and grubs. However, over the last 20 years, some viewers have become more desensitised towards such scenes and attitudes towards eating insect-based foods have softened.

There are tentative signs the idea is becoming more palatable to a growing proportion of the public – especially younger consumers – although the notion remains distasteful for many.

A 2022 One Poll survey of more than 8,000 people in the US, the UK, France and the Netherlands found 96% of people who had already eaten insect protein said they liked it and would try it again, with 80% of respondents stating they would like to see insects incorporated more widely into food products.

Meanwhile, last year, the University of Reading, in association with TrustTracker, surveyed 23,000 consumers across 18 countries about how they felt about lab-grown foods and eating insects. The research, funded by the EIT Food programme, found people up to the age of 44 were less likely to totally reject the idea of eating insects, with consumers in Denmark, Spain, the Netherlands and the UK, “relatively more accepting of the idea”, the university said.

That said, the university says a more in-depth follow-up survey of 2,400 consumers in six of the countries saw 58% of respondents said “the thought of eating insects is repulsive to me” and they would want more information on the health implications of eating the products. More than 60% of respondents said they might be motivated to eat insect-based foods because of potential environmental, sustainability and nutritional benefits, lower food cost, and if it tasted good.

In truth, the market for insect food – in Western countries at least – remains in its infancy. Although insects have been eaten for centuries in some countries further east, in the West, insect-based foods remain the kind of novelty reserved for reality TV shows.

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This ‘novelty’ issue is partly why in the mid-2010s the EU decided to introduce new legislation deeming edible insects and food containing insects as novel foods, which meant they required prior health assessment and approval under the bloc’s Novel Food Regulation.

While the change in legislation had an impact on all EU producers – and those companies importing into the trading area – it also proved to be a major blow for UK companies like Eat Grub, which sells insect-based foods.

Back in 2018, when Eat Grub co-founder Shami Radia spoke to Just Food the company was starting to gain traction with retailers. Sales were growing in the UK, the Netherlands and Finland and it had a listing with Lidl in Germany but, following the UK’s decision to leave the EU, things got complicated.

“Basically, we [the UK] were due to follow EU regulations on novel foods and the applications had been submitted to the EU for all of the main insects that were currently being consumed in the UK and in Europe. But then, when we actually left the EU, the UK for some reason decided that all those existing applications that had been submitted to the EU would need new applications within the UK, so it was a total mess and all the companies that were operating in the UK were left in limbo,” explains Radia.

He says the situation was finally resolved in late 2021 but the company has essentially had to start from scratch. “We started operating in 2014 and we had built up a steady stream of press and good PR and that was helping us to get more and more retailers on board but then Brexit happened, which essentially closed the EU off to us. Then Covid happened and we lost a few of our retailers because they wanted to focus on selling essentials, so we’ve lost a lot of the ground that we had gained.”

Insect-food brands believe attitudes changing

Eat Grub appears to be slowly building sales momentum again. Radia insists consumers are much more receptive to the idea of eating insect-based foods and, as a result, retailers are more open-minded about stocking this type of product. “That knowledge and acceptance of insects as a food source that we started to build up in 2014 when we launched has stuck and now, when we’re trying to get our foot in the door with retailers, it’s not as hard as it was in the early days when the idea of eating insects as a food source was not really known or understood in the UK,” he explains.

Clara Best is the CEO and founder of UK-based Saved, which uses protein powder derived from vertically farmed crickets in its puffed snacks, products that are being launched this month. The former PepsiCo executive agrees with Radia that perceptions have changed towards insect-based foods thanks in large part to the sustainability benefits of insects. 

“The market for alternative proteins is way beyond where it was five years ago and people know about the new alternatives like plant-based foods and they are more inclined to try different alternatives,” says Best. “They are aware insects are way more sustainable than other proteins and they know the protein percentage of them is quite high as well.”

She adds the consumer group that tends to be more educated about insect-based food and more open to trying it are millennials and people under 40. “I wouldn’t say there is gender differentiation but I feel women tend to be more interested in the health benefits and sustainability, and men are more interested in the protein,” Best adds.

However, while knowledge of the benefits of insect-based foods has grown along with acceptance, it is clear that barriers still remain. Richard Bennett, professor of agricultural economics at the University of Reading, helped to oversee the university’s study into attitudes towards lab-grown products and insects. He says the vast majority of participants had not consumed insect-derived products, did not know of their availability and were ‘disgusted’ at the thought of eating insects.

“This was particularly the case for older consumers,” says Bennett. “A minority were unenthusiastically willing to try insect products if they involved the incorporation of flour into other products such as bakery products – biscuits, crisps, snacks, etc.”

This is the part of the market that a growing number of companies like Ynsect are targeting. France-based Ynsect is one of the world’s largest insect ingredient producers for animals, people and plants and has already raised more than $500m of funding with a further $1bn in the pipeline. The investment will enable the company to ramp up production through the creation of what it says will be the world’s biggest insect farm in the French city of Amiens, a site that will have an annual output of 200,000 tonnes of ingredients per year. 

Antoine Hubert, Ynsect’s CEO, says the company’s goal is to make the way people eat more nutritious, sustainable and resilient. “Our food systems are at breaking point,” Hubert explains. “Sustainable food alternatives are essential, but we cannot afford to compromise on quality. The world’s first food ingredient derived from insects, our ingredient line for human food, AdalbaPro, offers cutting-edge solutions for the food industry that combine nutrition, sustainability and enjoyment. From burgers to protein shakes, our clients span across Europe and beyond.”

He believes the “only major obstacle” Ynsect has to overcome is consumer acceptance and that was partly why the company’s business plan was to start out focusing on animal nutrition to “slowly sensitise people to the issues at hand, working your way up to human diets”.

Insect-based pet food helping wider market

The use of insects in animal feed and pet food has increased in recent years and some insect-based food businesses that started out with the intention of creating foods for human consumption have pivoted into these areas. Best says the development of insect-based pet food has played a role in helping to drive wider consumer awareness and acceptance. 

“That pivot to pet food is huge and it’s been growing a lot,” she says. “The theory is, if you can educate people and manage to get them to buy it for their pets you can then move on to the consumers [buying it for themselves].”

The barriers appear to be slowly coming down, proponents argue. And, at the University of Reading, Bennett has some more data points that could have brands some cheer.

He says the university ran two workshops in Spain with 69 consumers, mostly aged 19 to 23 although some were 30- to 60-years-old. Participants were given a number of insect-based food products to try and they were given information on the potential benefits of eating insects in relation to the sustainability of food sources and environmental goals. Somewhat surprisingly, 72% of participants who ate the products said they would be willing to try/eat insect-derived foods in the future.  

“Consumer acceptance is definitely the main barrier to [the] growth of this industry in Europe, however, it is clear that consumers’ ‘disgust’ at the thought of eating insects can be mitigated by providing them with information about insect-based products – including food safety assurance – about sustainability and other reasons for consuming these products and providing opportunities for tastings of products, especially with people in social groups,” says Bennett.

The other good news for insect-based food brands is legislative barriers also appear to be slowly coming down. Earlier this month, the EU approved the house cricket and the lesser meal worm as safe for human consumption, under its novel foods regulation, meaning these insects can now be marketed as a food ingredient in a number of different food products.

The development of a fully-fledged insect-foods category will likely take many years to take flight but there appear to be some signals interest is starting to hatch.