Sitting down face-to-face with UH assistant professor Tiffany Shin, it was evident we weren’t alone. Piled high on an elegant, white dinner plate placed on the table between us laid dozens of dried, edible insects—their beady, empty eyes seemingly staring into mine. It was a visually unappealing platter of crickets, grasshoppers, mealworms and silkworms there for our dining pleasure. I was distracted and somewhat disgusted by the thought of eating a crunchy carcass—yet very intrigued.
At least two billion people worldwide eat insects as part of their traditional diet, with more than 1,900 species used as food. For most Westerners, however, eating bugs is unfamiliar and considered “too gross.” Shin, an accomplished researcher who joined the Conrad N. Hilton College of Hotel and Restaurant Management in fall 2016, is hoping to change that perception.
“It will take a lot of time and education to catch up, because it’s never been part of the diet in the United States. The majority of consumers still can’t get over the disgust factor,” Shin said.
Shin shifted her research focus to entomophagy, or eating insects, several years ago after the United Nations pushed bugs as an alternative food source. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) argues population growth, climate change, food waste and unsustainable practices make it necessary to find another option rich in protein and nutrients.
“It just made a lot of sense to me. I really bought into that argument. The world is growing quickly, and we need more food. If we can provide equal amounts of nutrition for human beings as beef and other meats while using less land, water and money, then why not utilize something that’s more environmentally friendly and easier to farm?”
Last year, Shin co-authored the first research to look at the consumption of edible insects from both a psychology and marketing perspective. Consumers, she learned, don’t want to see pictures of insects on packaging, and the marketing language needs to be ambiguous. “They really don’t want to see the shape of the bug. It’s all about how it’s presented. They don’t want to know too much. But if it’s healthy, I think they’re more willing to try.”
Growing up in Korea, snacking on a bowl of silkworm soup with rice was “just part of the culture and history,” said Shin. Now, as the head of global academic research and foreign public relations at the Korean Edible Insect Laboratory (KEIL), she’s working to lessen the risk perception of edible insects. KEIL, started in 2011, has grown to an $8.4 million a year company selling edible insect products for both humans and pets.
“One of the biggest challenges is people don’t understand the difference between edible insects and harmful insects, like cockroaches you see in your toilet. They hear the trigger word ‘insect’ and immediately have a negative attitude. In Korea, for example, they change the name of bugs to more appealing terms. It has been a successful strategy to promote insects to the general public.”
Insects are ground into powder to make mealworm cookies or combined with grains and nuts to make cricket energy bars. Others are hydrolyzed to extract nutrients and protein to produce pasta or even ice cream. “We discovered that you need to powder and extract it to stay in disguise in order to increase customer acceptance.”
In the coming years, the ambitious researcher has a vision to incorporate edible insects into the UH dining experience while also educating Houston-area restaurant owners about the benefits. Shin believes the industry is “ripe” for young entrepreneurs and would eventually like to teach a course about the role insects can play in sustainability and food security.
“I think Houston is the right place to start this journey and promote edible insects, because we’re so diverse,” says Shin. “People come from all different backgrounds with different degrees of acceptance.”
Hesitant at first but feeling adventurous, this writer did sample a cricket cookie and one dried silkworm. I’m glad I did. Will you be next?