Disgusting or delicious? The case for rethinking our food

| November 4, 2018

Somewhere between the rotten shark and the raw bull penis, psychologist Samuel West wants you to think about your food choices – or, more precisely, what you won’t eat and why.

West is the brains behind the Disgusting Food Museum, which recently opened in Malmo, Sweden. As the name suggests, the museum is exhibiting what it says is some of the world’s most disgusting foods, even if an assault, in any case, is on the nose and tongue of the taster, in this case presumably the curator.

So, what’s disgusting to one person can still be delicious to another, just to be clear.

Even so, among the 80 exhibits are casu marzua maggot-infested pecorino cheese from Sardinia; stinking, fermented Baltic Sea herring from Sweden; roast guinea pig from Peru; tree ant larvae; and hard-boiled, fertilised duck eggs called balut that are a delicacy on the streets of the Philippines.

Fertilised duck eggs, known as balut, is a popular street food in Southeast Asia.  

 

West says he isn’t just trying to be controversial or sensational. Rather, he’s hoping the museum and its exhibits might help to redefine people’s cultural notions of disgust when it comes to food.

If you’re from Australia and don’t believe that, you’d be surprised to find that Vegemite is also one of the exhibits. Alongside some American products too, such as root beer.

West says he’s also motivated to “do something meaningful for an environmental cause”, and so the museum also has a sustainability slant.

“We need to question our ideas of disgust if we’re going to consider some of the more environmentally friendly sources of protein, like ants,” he says.

This is something that also interests Eugene Chan, a senior lecturer at Monash Business School.

Professor Chan has just conducted two separate studies into the link between our state of mind and food prejudices. The results of his work, titled “Mindfulness and willingness to try insects as food: The role of disgust”, were recently published in the international scientific journal Food Quality and Preference.

It’s not the first time mindfulness has been studied in regard to food satisfaction, novel and unfamiliar food choices, healthy food choices, or as an intervention for eating disorders.

But it’s the first to study mindfulness and whether it has any effect on our willingness to eat insects – which is called entomophagy.

“The very notion of mindful eating is gaining traction,” Professor Chan says. “Mindfulness has been linked to choices that promote environmental sustainability, so we thought might it also increase the willingness to eat insects.”

His studies measured the willingness of participants to try insect-based foods and drinks, but not the sensory experience of actually eating insects, after being exposed to a series of mindfulness exercises.

Some of the products used in the studies included deep-fried silkworms and crickets, and chocolate chip cookies made from cricket flour.

“We need to question our ideas of disgust if we’re going to consider some of the more environmentally friendly sources of protein, like ants.”

The results came as a surprise to Professor Chan.

“Despite being presented with the positive health and environmental benefits as motivational factors to choose insects as a viable food and nutrition source, we found that participants still reacted with disgust,” Professor Chan says.

“In fact, we were surprised to find that mindfulness actually increased their levels of disgust.

“I anticipated that it might have encouraged people to try insects, as it removes some of that initial negative reaction to foreign food.

“Perhaps disgust is an emotion that is too negative and powerful to influence a behaviour change.”

He added that the negative response was “not limited to eating insects, but is a strong emotional reaction to newly-introduced foods as well”.

Which might explain why, for instance, in Sweden, pickled Baltic Sea herring (Surströmming) which means sour herring) is considered a staple food, but in other countries the prospect of eating it is met with horror, and sometimes nausea upon opening the tin.

If you need convincing, watch this video:

 

Disgust is one of eight primary human emotions. In The Expression of the Emotion in Man and AnimalsCharles Darwin described it as a sensation that refers to something revolting, and it’s one of the basic emotions identified in a study by psychologist Robert Plutchik. The others are anger, fear, sadness, surprise, anticipation, trust and joy.

Its function, from an evolutionary and biological perspective, is to protect us from food that may cause us harm.

But while some of the foods we find disgusting are genuinely unsafe to eat, our responses to others are, generally speaking, regionally constructed, and indeed play a major role in our social and cultural identity.

Which is why in parts of Southeast Asia and South America, for instance, there’s a huge appetite for eating insects, including tarantulas and barbecued larvae, but in the western world it holds little appeal and is sometimes even considered primitive behaviour.

Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations estimates that at least two billion people eat more than 2100 species of insects as part of their traditional diets.

The most commonly consumed insects are beetles, caterpillars, bees, wasps and ants. Then grasshoppers, locusts and crickets, cicadas, leafhoppers, plant hoppers, scale insects and tree bugs, termites, dragonflies and flies.

Go on, give it a fry: silkworms are sold as a snack food in many countries.

 

Studies have shown that these types of bugs pack a nutritional punch; they’re high in protein, calcium, zinc, iron and vitamin A, as well as amino acids and essential vitamins and minerals.

The FAO argues that, with the world’s population set to reach nine billion people by 2050, current food production will “need to almost double” and that “alternative solutions to conventional livestock and feed sources need to be found”.

In its 2013 report, Edible Insects: Future Prospects for Food and Feed Security, the organisation says that entomophagy can go a long way to helping solve this food and feed problem.

“Insects as food and feed emerge as an especially relevant issue in the 21st century due to the rising cost of animal protein, food and feed security, environmental pressures, population growth and increasing demand for protein among the middle classes,” it says.

But can people in the western world overcome their aversion to eating bugs?

More and more companies are banking on it, and given so many people already eat related arthropods such as shrimp, prawns and lobster, they might be onto something.

In the future, we may be eating ‘buguettes’. Illustration by Justin Hewlett.

 

The global edible insect market is forecast to grow from about US$400 million today to more than US$1.1billion by 2023, according to market researchers Meticulous Research.

It also notes that crickets command the largest share of the global edible insects market, reflecting increasing demand for cricket-based products, such as protein powder, protein bars and snacks, among others.

In 2016, a Monash University student science team started “The Cricket Effect”, as part of their Bachelor of Science Advanced – Global Challenges course.

The team of Hien Vu, Cameron Lawman, Amber Crittenden and Alex Hopkins won the Monash Global Hunger Hack with their concept of baking cupcakes from cricket flour. This soon evolved into cricket flour muesli bars, with the team prototyping and testing a variety of flavours.

They took the concept to the general public at the veski fast smarts Melbourne Knowledge Week event in 2017 with the presentation “The future of food: are insects going to creep into your diet?”, with which they won the people’s choice award.

This post was published by Lens at Monash University.

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