On a recent morning, students at a middle school outside Zurich gathered around a table laden with snacks made of insects. They quickly scooped up spiced mealworms, crickets dusted with paprika, and crackers made with flour from ground-up crickets.
It doesn’t taste like a bug,” said Ana Munoz, 13, as she nibbled on a cricket. “It just tastes like what it’s seasoned with.” Then she ate chile-pepper mealworms and made a face: “blech.”
Switzerland in 2017 became the first country in Europe to allow insects to be sold as food for humans after a lobbying campaign by edible-insect startups. That was the easy part. Now the companies must overcome what entomologists call the “yuck factor,” the gut feeling among many Western diners that insects are signs of rot and pestilence that shouldn’t be placed in one’s mouth.
To do that, the industry is recruiting consumers whose tastes are still in the larval state. Timothée Olivier, who works for Swiss Insects, an association of companies that sell bugs for human consumption, organized the tasting at the middle school. For the past four years, he has been touring Swiss schools touting the benefits of eating insects and bringing along samples.
“They are young, more open to novelty,” noted Mr. Olivier. “At some point, if not tomorrow then later, they will include insects in their diet.”
Until recently, Western civilization sought to keep insects out of food. Regulators viewed them as a threat to human health. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration classifies insects that aren’t an intentional ingredient as “filth.” But now more government officials, academics and companies want to make insects a feature, not a bug, of the Western diet.
Insects are an environmentally friendly source of protein and vitamins, and generate a fraction of the greenhouse gases of raising cattle, pigs and other livestock. And scientists say they are safe to eat, provided they are raised in controlled environments.
People across Asia, Africa and South America eat insects, from fried grasshoppers in Thailand to roasted big-bottomed ants in Colombia. Several children at Mr. Olivier’s presentation were accustomed to such critters because of trips to visit family abroad.
“I already eat enough insects when I go to Colombia, so I don’t have to eat them here,” said one 13-year-old.
he European Union in 2021 followed Switzerland and so far has authorized four types of bugs for human consumption: yellow mealworms, migratory locusts, crickets and lesser mealworms. The FDA is less restrictive: Unintentional bugs are considered to be contaminants, but the agency doesn’t object to intentional bugs, so long as the product is made according to good manufacturing practices.
Still, companies are struggling to find a mass audience for their products in the West, the yuck factor being a major obstacle.
“We haven’t had problems getting people to eat insects once,” said Bastien Rabastens, founder of Paris-based Jimini’s, which sells salted-butter caramel mealworms, yellow- curry grasshoppers and a host of other insect-based fare. “The real challenge for us is that this won’t be just one time, ticking the box ‘I’ve eaten insects’ like ‘I’ve gone skydiving.’”