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April 20, 2019

Virtual Crickets

During my research on consumers’ attitude on insect-based food products ​1​, I identified the differnt components that influence such attitudes and that also influence the risk associated with this particular product category.

Framework representing the (bottom-up and top-down) components that influence the formation of attitudes regarding insect-based (especially powder and flour) food products.​1​

In my framework, which is supported by later research ​2,3​, I identified 3 top-down components of rejections regarding insect-based food:

  • Disgust: is a rejection based on notions that the object or action we are contemplating, such as eating a particular food, will have physically, culturally, or morally dangerous consequences.
  • Distaste: is a type of rejection primarily motivated by sensory factors. The focus is on bad taste and/or smell but may include texture or appearance.
  • Food Neophobia: is defined as the human propensity of rejecting the ingestion of any kind of novel food to protect the body from a possible hazard.

As you can clearly see from the image above, the more impactful element that can counteract and influence positively all the rejection components, and risk perceptions, is to have first-hand experiences of (or exposure to) insects used as food. Is no coincidence that exposure is also one of the more successful strategies toward entomophagy adoption:

For novel foods, several studies have highlighted the importance of successive exposures in the acceptance of a new product and this will certainly be necessary in the case of edible insects.

​4​

A documented way to reduce any phobia, intended as an inappropriate response of fear to a stimulus which is not harmful, is to have direct experience with the object that elicits such responses. This is what psychologists call “exposure therapy”.

But who will, willingly and readily, face something we are not comfortable with?

Virtual Reality and Exposure Therapy

The leaps and bounds that virtual reality technologies did in the last few years would make tame the wildest dreams of a sci-fi geek of the ’80s. Not surprisingly the gaming industry is the principal reason for the widespread commercial availability of many VR solutions.

Researchers found that by using the latest VR technologies the issue of exposure can be addressed in a real, safe environment:

In virtual reality, exposure is secure, can be repeatedly experienced, within various scenarios, with the desired intensity […].

​5​

One of the drawbacks that these kinds of studies faced was the lack of haptic interaction, which means the lack of actual tactile interaction with the object considered.

This obstacle has been since mitigated and the haptic component, which is “an important step in exposure-based therapy”​5,6​, has been introduced in many experiments, largely thanks to the availability of various sensory feedback devices, again, mostly developed for gaming purposes.

VR and Exposure to Entomophagy

This same approach could be used to overcome the initial barrier that the consumers have in regards of insects used as food and that would otherwise prevent in toto the first experience of this product category and the possible journey to adopting entomophagy.

In the case of entomophagy, this particular form of exposure needs to be a multisensorial experience, as taste is the main concern for customer approaching insect-based food and because, in general, food evaluations are based on a multitude of other embedded sensorial components, such as texture, smell, and even sound.

But in our case, this issue is easily bypassed, without the use of any fancy interaction apparatus, as there is plenty of available food products that can simulate the feeling of eating insects:

The flavour of moth larvae [has been compared] with pine nuts and hazelnuts, while the texture was considered soft. The taste of crickets was mainly described as dried fruit, especially almonds, while the texture was described as “crispy”. Finally, the taste of locusts has been described similar to the flavour of the fish, and the texture defined “crispy”.

​7​

Or thanks to the current commercial availability of insects embedded in products that are familiar to the consumer (crisps, pasta, etc…)

Rendering Virtual Crickets

The benefits that this particular approach of using VR to analyse and decrease the top-down components of adverse attitudes regarding the use of insects as food and feed could be many:

  • Firstly, it could be used as an effective tool to elicit and measure precisely the degree of customers’ disgust and neophobia, aiding in an accurate consumers segmentation based on these attributes, which is an essential tool to devise targeted strategies to improve the acceptance of entomophagy in the “western consumer” ​8​.
  • It could be an interesting way to introduce consumers to the notion of entomophagy which, even with the increasing media exposure that is happening lately, is still kind of an alien idea.
  • Then, the main benefit is to create a safe and controlled exposure situation, which, as said before, is the main strategy to decrease the individual level of disgust and food neophobia and has a positive impact in relieving risk perception toward the insect-based food category ​1​.

The actual implemenation could take several forms, for example:

  • Where the insect is not present at all and the virtual whole insect is physically substituted by another product (akin for texture, taste, etc…). In this case, the main evaluations that the consumer would face would involve their degree of disgust and neophobia, with a great impact on those components, not dissimilarly from the exposure therapy in arachnophobia, using “fake” spiders ​6​.
  • Where a familiar virtual food product is replaced by an edible insect. this again would help to circumvent the initial barrier and after the consumption is carried out without negative consequences, it would impact positively reducing the degree of all the components (disgust, distaste, neophobia, and risk).
  • Where the virtual insect is replaced by a tangible familiar product for the customer, but that contains the insect as an ingredient (this could range from bars and chocolate to crisps and pasta). This approach would be very beneficial from a sensorial perspective, as there is much more control over such characteristics and taste, texture, etc… can be tailored toward customer preferences.

Many other iterations on the matter are possible, but ideally, this VR experiments should be inserted in a wider, gradual, introduction to insects as food so that the shift in acceptance and attitudes could be measured on an individual basis.

The Next (Virtual) Steps

In light of these considerations, this Virtual Reality experiments could be also a captivating and relatively inexpensive solution, due to the easy accessibility of VR technologies, for companies that produce insect-based foods to promote their products and create introductory consumption occasion and tasting experiences that are very much needed to create a stable and wider market for these products.

As far I am aware this approach has been never really implemented, so if you are an academic that would like to try VR in a broader entomophagy research project or if you are a company that wants to try innovative routes to market their insect-based product and create a wider customer base, feel free to contact me, to start a prolific conversation.


References

  1. 1.
    De Santis G. Qualitative Research On the Attitudes toward Consumption of Insect Based Flours and Powders. 2016. http://www.gianlorenzods.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/04/FE6006-Gianlroenzo-De-Santis-115222258.pdf.
  2. 2.
    La Barbera F, Verneau F, Amato M, Grunert K. Understanding Westerners’ disgust for the eating of insects: The role of food neophobia and implicit associations. Food Quality and Preference. March 2018:120-125. doi:10.1016/j.foodqual.2017.10.002
  3. 3.
    Wilkinson K, Muhlhausler B, Motley C, Crump A, Bray H, Ankeny R. Australian Consumers’ Awareness and Acceptance of Insects as Food. Insects. April 2018:44. doi:10.3390/insects9020044
  4. 4.
    Caparros Megido R, Sablon L, Geuens M, et al. Edible Insects Acceptance by Belgian Consumers: Promising Attitude for Entomophagy Development. J Sens Stud. December 2013:14-20. doi:10.1111/joss.12077
  5. 5.
    Cavrag M, Lariviere G, Cretu A-M, Bouchard S. Interaction with virtual spiders for eliciting disgust in the treatment of phobias. In: 2014 IEEE International Symposium on Haptic, Audio and Visual Environments and Games (HAVE) Proceedings. IEEE; 2014. doi:10.1109/have.2014.6954327
  6. 6.
    Hoffman HG, Garcia-Palacios A, Carlin A, Furness III TA, Botella-Arbona C. Interfaces That Heal: Coupling Real and Virtual Objects to Treat Spider Phobia. International Journal of Human-Computer Interaction. October 2003:283-300. doi:10.1207/s15327590ijhc1602_08
  7. 7.
    Sogari G. Entomophagy and Italian consumers: an exploratory analysis. Progress in Nutrition. 2015;17(4):311-316.
  8. 8.
    Henriques AS, King SC, Meiselman HL. Consumer segmentation based on food neophobia and its application to product development. Food Quality and Preference. March 2009:83-91. doi:10.1016/j.foodqual.2008.01.003
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