Care for grasshopper chips or cricket croquettes? How about mealworm sushi? If you were raised in the West, you’d probably rather eat vomit. Which is a shame, because insects are actually a great source of protein—and they’re healthier and gentler on the environment than commercially raised livestock.
Here to convince the squeamish masses that gobbling up creepy-crawlers isn’t the grossest thing on earth are four students in the Innovation Design Engineering Masters program at the Royal College of Art and Imperial College London. They’ve developed Ento, a product and branding scheme aimed at "introducing edible insects to the western diet." Their strategy? Tasty design.
That starts with the look of the insects themselves. "We discovered early on that cooked insects were surprisingly tasty, having a subtle, savoury flavour," Ento cofounder Jonathan Fraser tells us in an email. "However, we also found out that in their unprocessed form, most people were still grossed out by the idea of eating them. When we abstracted the insects though, people became a lot more open to the idea."
By "abstracted" he means "ground up the little buggers so they don’t evoke something you’d normally swat with a newspaper." After many hours in the kitchen—and several more testing recipes on plucky eaters—they settled on a handful of deftly disguised creations, included dried cricket mince, honey caterpillar croquettes, and grasshopper pate.
Then, they got to work packaging the recipes for max shelf appeal. "We wanted insect foods to be presented in clean, crisp, and totally un-insecty way," Fraser says. "Our goal was to make the brand fit three key characteristics: futuristic, natural, and friendly." Indeed, the packaging has a fresh, simple quality that doesn’t advertise the insects within. But it doesn’t totally camouflage them, either. Note the products’ unvarnished, prominently placed names and the small green insect icons on the labels. "The food is tasty and appetizing, so none of the packaging hides it, nor does it take the easy road and make a gimmick of the ingredients," Fraser says. "Our overriding message is the sustainability and nutritional benefits of edible insects, so the packaging was designed to convey this in an understandable and straightforward manner."
Our goal was to make the brand fit three key characteristics: futuristic, natural, and friendly.
Could something like this actually work? Are we really so susceptible to slick presentation that we’d brush off years of cultural indoctrination and willingly pop mealworms like a bag of Lay’s? If history is any guide, the answer is yes. Consider the case of Crisco. Criso was developed at the turn of the 20th century in a lab—not the world’s most appetizing idea to consumers of the day. But Crisco’s maker, Proctor & Gamble, launched a marketing offensive that billed Crisco as a wholesome, of-the-earth alternative to lard, which had come under fire after Upton Sinclair’s sensational (albeit fictional) expose of the meatpacking industry in The Jungle. Soon, everyone was buying Crisco.
We’re in a similar boat today. Most of us are roundly disgusted by the livestock industry, with its dubious ethics and astronomical carbon footprint. Fraser and his partners are proposing an alternative that seems downright icky at first blush, but with the right sales pitch—and, perhaps more importantly, the backing of a giant corporation—who knows? Insects may very well be the Crisco of tomorrow. "We would love to take Ento forward and make a real business of it," Fraser says. "Our team is still studying, but we all graduate in July this year, so we will be looking for funding and potential partners then." Got that, P&G?
[Images courtesy of Aran Dasan, Jacky Chung, Jonathan Fraser, and Julene Aguirre-Bielschowsky]