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The Next Bite: The Stomach

Relax. Eat bugs.

Researchers make the case for an unlikely protein

Cricket-eating competitors await snacks at temporary bug restaurant in front of Faneuil Hall. John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

For many Americans, insects are what you feed your pet lizard — not your own family. But Americans have a long history of chowing down on bugs — and maybe, with the right frame of mind, we might do it again.

An estimated 1,900 insect species are eaten around the world. Some early colonists in what’s now the United States reportedly ate locusts and insect fruitcakes to survive, while Native American tribes such as the Cherokee in North Carolina occasionally enjoyed cicadas fried in hog fat. Today, though, many in the United States and Europe recoil at the very thought of eating bugs.

Now, researchers are trying to change that. In a recent study from the University of Bern in Switzerland, scientists showed 180 people in Germany different versions of a flier advertising insect-based food. Some described the insects as healthy or environmentally friendly, while others called it words like “delicious,” “exquisite,” or “trendy.” Then they offered participants a chocolate truffle made of roughly 20 mealworms.

Whether these participants could get past the yuck factor depended on the sales pitch they heard. “What we found is consistent with what others found with foods like broccoli,” said Sebastian Berger, an author of the study and an assistant professor of behavioral science at the University of Bern. “It works better to refer to these foods as tasty or luxurious rather than beneficial to health or the environment.”

Animal farming is responsible for about 8 percent of the United States’ greenhouse gas emissions each year, and switching to insect-based proteins could seriously reduce those numbers. One 2010 study found that, per kilogram, four edible insect species — including crickets and mealworms — produce less than 1 percent of the greenhouse gases produced by traditional livestock. But despite all the new startups pushing cricket flour and insect protein bars, eating bugs has yet to go mainstream.

“Globally, we have a lack of proteins, and it will be very good if Western countries show that eating insects is something normal,” said Thomas Brunner, a professor of consumer behavior in the School of Agricultural, Forest and Food Sciences at the University of Bern. “But I think it will really take 20, 50, even 60 years to become really big. It takes time — I mean, it’ll probably take generations.”

Even so, researchers are holding out hope. Lobsters — now an expensive delicacy — were once repulsive prison food in Massachusetts. Indentured servants even rallied until their contracts limited lobster dinner to no more than three times a week.

“It’s like the beginning of sushi, which [rose] in the market as a luxury food. If I told my grandmother to eat cold rice with seaweed and uncooked fish, she would be very disgusted. But if I asked my wife if she wants sushi, she would be very happy,” Berger said. “Disgusted feelings can change very quickly.”

Editors Dante Ramos, David Scharfenberg, and Alex Kingsbury

Design and development Elaina Natario

Design Director Heather Hopp-Bruce

Audience engagement Heather Ciras

Illustration Cristina Martín Recasens

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