Hi! I’m Rachel Herz, PhD, and I teach psychology at Brown University and Boston College. I recently appeared on the AJ+ show “In Real Life” to talk about how we can get over our psychological disgust of eating bugs - which you can watch here.

A lot of my research focuses on why we find certain foods - and smells - disgusting, and I’ve authored a number of books and articles about the subject like "Why You Eat What You Eat" and "That's Disgusting."

In many parts of the world, for example, eating insects is a (delicious) no-brainer. Over two billion people eat insects and the UN says they’re a sustainable source of protein we’ll need to consider incorporating into our diets as the world’s population balloons to over 9 billion by 2050.

But we in the West often see bugs as vermin and pests, and are grossed out by even touching them sometimes. How can the same exact thing - insects, in this case - be perceived in such radically different ways across the world? Well, a lot of it comes down to psychology (and even evolutionary biology).

Yara Elmjouie, the host of “In Real Life” who tried a lot of bugs is here too to answer your questions. Ask us anything!

Proof: https://twitter.com/ajplus/status/1151239850894356480


Update: I have to run now, but thank you all for such interesting, food-for-thought questions! (I might come back in a couple hours to answer a few more.) Be sure to check out the In Real Life episode if you want to learn more about how to overcome your psychological disgust of eating insects (and learn what all the different bugs taste like). And if you’re curious about why we eat what we eat or why we find certain foods and smells disgusting, be sure to check out my books!

The key to a happy and healthy relationship with food is this: knowing about all the sensory, psychological and physiological factors that go into why you eat what you eat. That knowledge will give YOU control over your relationship with food, rather than feeling that food controls you. Thanks everyone!

Comments: 268 • Responses: 28  • Date: 

sankarshp53 karma

How much of what we eat is affected by our culture rather than our primal instincts protecting us from something that's harmful?

Thanks for the AMA!

ajplus53 karma

A lot of what we eat is cultural. The adage "one man's (woman's) meat another's poison" is completely true. For example, eating bugs! In Thailand and various Asian and South American countries bugs are considered nutritious and delicious, but most westerner's find them gross. Where instinct and protection from poison comes in is with our reaction to bitter. Most things that are poisonous taste very bitter, so we are hardwired to dislike bitter. However, not everything that is bitter is toxic, such as leafy bitter greens. That said, nature has equipped us to be better safe than sorry, so avoiding healthy greens is better than poisoning yourself by eating a poisonous berry.

PDXMB50 karma

How do you see people reacting to lab-grown meats? Is there an "ick" factor there that you can identify, or do you think people will easily accept/eat them?

ajplus46 karma

Great question. I think that it depends on how the idea of lab-grown meats is presented. If it is presented in a way that doesn't make it seem Frankenstein-esque and instead emphasizes the healthy, humane and otherwise virtuous factors, along with convincing people that it tastes great, then it would work. Unfortunately, many people have a negative association with food and "lab-science." So, until that changes (which I hope it does) lab-grown meat would need to play down the "lab" part and emphasize the good and tasty outcome.

Another thing to consider is how science has made food safer and better in lots of ways.

Irradiation is used to make food safer by increasing shelf life, killing bacteria etc. It was first developed by NASA so that food would be safe to eat for up to 3 yrs at 85 degrees F. Now it is used for all kinds of foods from apples to eggs to meats. The "radiation" isn't harmful to the food, but does kill bacteria etc.

iriestace46 karma

Why don't I like vegetables? My mom said I used to eat everything when I was little but now I can't even gag them down.

ajplus49 karma

I think you may need to ask yourself that question! Was there a time since you were little that you got sick after eating veggies? That could create a "learned taste aversion" which is why you might avoid them now. Otherwise, maybe you should see if there are *any* vegetables you could stomach. Or perhaps if you prepared a certain vegetable you don't like in a different way like grilling or roasting carrots rather than eating them boiled (yuck 🙂).

alphasymphonic27 karma

Why are we so willing to constantly go back to fast foods even when we know it doesn't really give us the right fuel and we feel like garbage afterwards?

ajplus22 karma

A lot of what we eat is due to habit. We need to spend a little time to figure out what foods we can eat instead of those that we enjoy and make us feel good.

The key to not eating things we "really don't want to eat" is to take a more mindful approach-- literally. Ask yourself, do I really want to eat this? Am I getting pleasure from eating this? How is this food making me feel, both emotionally and physically. If you ask yourself that question as you're eating you can stop yourself from eating things you'd rather not. It's like an equation: is the pleasure etc balanced or exceeding the calories or how I'm going to feel after I eat it. When it is worth it you should eat it, when the equation shifts towards not being balanced or worth it then stop.

EDIT: Typo

Mavsnash3325 karma

I can't eat meat, vegetables, fruits, a lot of other things, not because I don't want to or for a medical reason. Just when I try it triggers a gag reflex. Why?

ajplus17 karma

I think your gag reflex with so many foods suggests something more serious than I can answer off the cuff. I would suggest talking to a doctor or therapist about this.

A_Feathered_Raptor15 karma

What bug-based food would you suggest to a newcomer, just to get over that psychological avoidance we have here in the US?

ajplus29 karma

I think the best first initiation is a food that doesn't look or taste or feel like anything new or BUG-like. A great example is a protein bar made with crickets. You would never know you were eating crickets if you didn't read the label.

Once you get used to the idea that eating crickets in that form is fine (and even better perhaps in terms of calories and protein content etc.), you'd likely be willing to try crickets in other forms. And gradually you'd be able to eat a cricket that looks like a cricket!

mr__susan9 karma

Why do western cultures see lobsters / crabs / prawns as delicacies, when their land-based cousins are seen as disgusting?

ajplus13 karma

We in the West didn't always think lobsters were delicious! (And this is something I talk about with Yara in the documentary. In fact in the 1600s they were considered vermin and only served to slaves and prisoners, until people protested saying that eating lobsters more than 2x/week was "cruel and unusual punishment." And so, prisoners and slaves had their lobster dinners reduced to the 2x/week max.

This just shows how perception changes with culture in terms of time. You make something perceived to be acceptable or delicious, or a luxury and it becomes that. Thinking makes it so!

herb-tarlek8 karma

Why do some people crave sugar while other crave alcohol?

ajplus16 karma

Alcohol is actually fermented sugar, either from the plant (e.g., wheat, barley, corn) or from sugar itself (e.g., hard seltzer). When people stop drinking alcohol they often crave sugar more as a replacement. So craving sugar and alcohol often go together, again in an equation sort of way.

moksifu6 karma

What do your top 5 insects taste like in comparison to meats like chicken?

ajplus7 karma

Yara (documentary host): The diversity of flavor that insects offer is really quite something. It really is, like chef Joseph Yoon says in our documentary, a “new playground” for Western chefs. Some can be used to add a little kick to dishes, while others are a full-on protein replacement (or even a protein complement, as in, you can sprinkle some crickets on top of a steak for some added texture – and protein!)

Ants, for example, have a really tart, acidic flavor. You can sprinkle them on anything to maybe counterbalance some of the more alkaline flavors. Scorpions have a salty, meaty flavor, and seasoned chapulines (aka: grasshoppers) remind me a lot of sumac, a sort of berry powdery spice that a lot of us with roots in the Middle East are pretty familiar with.

So, to answer your question, I’d say my top five, from our bug dinner, were the following:

  1. Ants
  2. Grasshoppers
  3. Crickets
  4. Silkworm Pupae
  5. Scorpions

SgtTryhard5 karma

If we adopt insects as a primary source of 'meat', would it be superior in every way(expect for some people finding it gross) compared to pork, beef, etc?

Thanks for the AMA!

ajplus6 karma

As far as I know insects are superior to animal meat in every way, from their carbon footprint to their water usage to their macronutrient content. The only issue, currently, is cost in the U.S. It is more expensive to buy a 1lb of insects than 1lb of animal meat, but with demand and greater availability that should change. Thank you for your question!

afumarola5 karma

A reason we’re inclined towards certain foods/flavors is their evolutionary benefit, like sugar for instance. My question is why are we also inclined towards food with a crunch? It’s not really a flavor but it is something humans, at least in my culture, are drawn to.

ajplus10 karma

Our preference for crunch also depends on what the food is. If we expect that it should be crunchy to signify crispiness or freshness then it is good. But if something that should be soft (like butter) is crunchy then we think it is NOT GOOD (and we're probably right).

Liking crunch is learned (e.g., from foods within a culture or your personal experience) but it's also appealing because crunch gives more sensory involvement to a food. So when something is crunchy we have to work at it more to eat it and it stays longer in our mouths and therefore it is also more satiating.

fartfacepooper5 karma

What's a good cricket recipe?

ajplus5 karma

Yara (documentary host): Oooh, great question. In our short documentary, we ate a whole slew of cricket dishes. I’d say my favorite was probably cricket gougeres – aka: French cheese puffs made in part with cricket flour. Cricket flour seems to be a really versatile, protein-rich base that you can use to make just about anything bakeable (and as you’ll see at the end of the piece, its even used to make protein bars). But honestly, crickets are delicious on their own – think of them as croutons. You can sprinkle them on anything for some added crunch, protein, and a nice roasted nutty flavor.

derritorone4 karma

So, if we need to consider eating bugs as a source of protein in the future, and the population of the West are viewing bugs as pests and being grossed out by them, how would you approach this problem to incorporate such a food style into people's lives?

ajplus6 karma

There are several ways to make insects more acceptable (and this is also something we talk about here in the doc).

1) Disguise them by preparing them in foods where they aren't immediately visible. e.g., cricket ravioli.

2) Label them in ways that makes them more attractive-- take the "bug" out, use a foreign language word or make up a new word (we don't say I'm eating pig for breakfast, we say we're eating bacon).

3) Make them fashionable by having celebrities endorse eating them and seen eating them.

4) Brand and market them with only positive attributes from health to fitness (lower calorie weight loss potential!) to moral/human/environmental factors (greenhouse gas emissions etc.).

Pedropeller3 karma

Hello Dr. Herz

If a person craves certain foods, is there a co-orelation between the desire and nutritonal needs of the body?

ajplus7 karma

Sometimes. When someone is deficient in salt because they are dehydrated, they can crave salty foods more. And being deficient in calcium has been shown to lead people to eating foods to bring back up the calcium level in the body. (And it's sometimes even led to eating things that aren't food, like clay!).

But most of the time, for most of us who are generally not deficient in minerals or macronutrients, our cravings are mainly due to our desires and what we often eat. We crave foods that we eat relatively frequently not foods that we only very eat rarely.

vagabondhermit3 karma

Have you ever heard about the dining clubs that were popular at the turn of the twentieth century? There was one, the Ichthyophagus Club that specialized in eating underwater oddities.

Have you done any research into why some people are so averse to experimentation in food and why some are adventurous, like the members of these clubs? I’m thinking personal taste is a small factor, while social pressures likely dominate.

What food should people with conventional western palates be more willing to try?

ajplus3 karma

I have heard of various dining clubs. There is one now called The Explorers Club.

The main difference that makes some people adventurous with foods and others very reserved, is a personality trait called "neophobia" – basically fear of the new, but specifically *fear of new foods.*

I have the scale for Neophobia in my book "Why You Eat What You Eat". It is related to the personality trait of "openness to experience". People who are high on the neophobia scale are generally (but not always) more likely to score low on "openness to experience."

Since it is a personality trait it is hard to change, but people with neophobia can be encouraged to try more different foods if the right circumstances are present. Making food a social experience and seeing other people enjoy the food is one way that can be helpful.

And trying a common food from a different culture could be a good first start – e.g., sushi. You can start with a california roll and then move your way up from there.

toxic_pantaloons3 karma

I have felt conflicted lately over eating pork after finding out pigs are smart. any thoughts on this? why do we feel worse for eating smart animals than "dumb" ones?

ajplus5 karma

I have the same issue with pork and I've known that pigs are smart and sweet for a long time.

"Unfortunately," the more we find out about animal consciousness the more we discover how almost every creature (maybe every creature) experiences pain or feelings or thoughts of some kind.

The issue with intelligence is that the more we see an animal as "intelligent", the more they feel like us. And it is harder for us to eat something that seems more human-like. This is why we are so appalled at the thought of eating pets (e.g., dogs). Dogs are our babies and it is practically cannibalism to consider eating them. However, in countries where dogs are not pets they are considered acceptable to eat as food. What we consider to be "edible" (or not) has EVERYTHING to do with our how we think about what we are eating.

Poisson83 karma

Why do we think vegetables don't taste good?

ajplus3 karma

Many people do think vegetables taste good. A lot of it has to do how much we are exposed to vegetables – the more we eat them the more we like them. This also relates to how you feel after eating vegetables. You'll feel better after eating vegetables than donuts.

And another biggie is preparation. If you roast a vegetable it tastes sweeter. And adding oil, butter, salt, or a little sugar makes them tastier too, as we are programmed to like salt, sugar and fat.

stickwithplanb2 karma

Is there any kind of link to someone's personality and the type of food they enjoy or dislike most?

ajplus2 karma

Personality isn't that specific. The trait of neophobia (which I talk about below) is related to a person being willing (or not) to try many different foods and that results in them liking more foods (or not).

Your upbringing – what your comfort foods from childhood were/are – your cultural exposure to various foods and your own personal experiences dictate what foods you most enjoy.

HouseTargarian2 karma

I've heard that some popular DNA companies now will send you information from your sample that identifies your likes/dislikes, like vanilla ice cream. If genetics guides our taste, and that paired with so much variety in many parts of the world, then wouldn't it be highly likely for similar populations to simply surround themselves with similar foods? Cultural norms geared by genetics? Or did the genetics respond to the culture over time? Hmmm.

ajplus2 karma

I'm a little skeptical of a DNA test telling you something as specific as your preferences for vanilla ice cream.

I think what is more likely based on genetics is that your ancestors and you are not lactose deficient, which means your body can digest milk sugars like the ones in ice cream. There is also more genetic difference between members of the same ethnicity than between ethnicities overall.

irishrelief1 karma

Could an aversion to what we eat be simply due to the domestication of humans as a species?

I think the insects as food topic causes problems in the west because you never change them from insects. Cows become beef, pigs pork, deer venison, ad nauseam. My fiance eats meat but cannot stand the initial butchering process. Only once an animal is mostly unrecognizable on the table does her disgust fade.

Bugs on a whole are often represented as poisonous and dangerous to the domesticated west. There are plenty I would never eat, simply from resembling an insect I know is poisonous (I have the same approach to mushrooms).

Is it possible that in Africa or Asia people are more educated on what can be consumed for survival? How does it affect the minds of those people who see one insect (mosquito) as a harbinger of death and another (meal worms) as dinner?

ajplus4 karma

Our aversions to food are learned through our experience/culture. They are not part of our biology. The personality trait of neophobia which is present among people in every culture (see more on neophobia in my previous answers), prevents people from trying new things.

Necessity is a great way to get over aversion. Bear Grylls is a vegetarian except when he's doing his survival stuff where he eats lots of insects. When people don't have access to much large game for protein they will turn to other convenient sources, such as insects. And the more familiarity they have with eating them and the more they have learned about how to prepare them, the more likely it is that they like them ... and want to eat them.

snowlarbear1 karma

how close are shellfish to insects, do you think we can psychologically trick people into eating insects by calling them land shrimp, forest lobsters, and mountain crabs?

ajplus2 karma

Shellfish and insects are in the same sub-phylum so they are pretty close, kind of like the equivalent of cows and foxes. I love your idea of changing the name to something more attractive. I think a foreign language spin may be best-- think of "escargot" which is french for snail. We can call ants "fourmis" [French] and serve them with butter and garlic and that should increase their appeal.

Yara and I tried riffing on some French names we thought might work in the doc too!

mdw0801 karma

Do you find any insects to have a better taste than standard western meats?

ajplus2 karma

Yara [documentary host]:

Hmm, I think I want to question the basis of that comparison – if we look at all protein sources (not just living organisms), there are vast disparities. Beans are high in protein, but have a mushy, earthy taste. Beef has, I guess, what we’d consider a very “meaty” or “fleshy” taste with a lot of mouthfeel. Insects are so varied in taste and texture that you can’t really say whether they taste “better” or “worse.”

They’re frankly, just, different. Grasshoppers have a sort of spiced taste, crickets taste nutty, and apparently the witchetty grub (similar to the fat, juicy worm that Simba ate) apparently tastes like fatty tuna So I wouldn’t make a blanket statement about whether insects taste better or worse across the board, but rather that there’s a whole host of different flavors and textures that are good and delicious in their own right.

MacGyverMacGuffin1 karma

More and more evidence is mounting that phobias can be passed on via genetics as a legacy of ancestral trauma. What is your opinion on the idea that the West's aversion to eating bugs may be a cultural phobia with genetic roots reflecting a legacy of some insect-related event(s) such as the Black Death that other cultures/genetic lineages did not experience in the same way, or with the same results?

ajplus1 karma

That is a very interesting question and good point. However, eating bugs was not the cause of the black death, even if fleas and lice were the source of the bacterium. So I don’t think evolutionary epigenetic effects would work in that way. Generally the way that these epigenetic effects work is that trauma experience by a parent or grandparent sensitizes offspring’s reactivity to anxiety in general – not to a specific source.

thoawaydatrash1 karma

For both of you: What are your favorite bug based snacks?

ajplus2 karma

Yara [documentary host]:

Well, I’ve just barely waded into the world of edible insects, so I haven’t been eating them for long enough to have a bunch of favorites. But based on my limited exposure, I’d say seasoned crickets are DELICIOUS as a snack, and jam-packed with protein. And they’re SO much more nutritious for you than a bag of potato chips. Only problem is that, as of now, crickets are pretty pricey. If we find a way to farm them at low cost in the future, I don’t see why kids can’t have a bag of crunchy crickets during recess instead of a largely nutrition-less bag of cheese puffs.

Arsenalsxc1 karma

Why does our fondness for specific types of food develop and change over our lifecycle for example what we enjoy as children, as adults and elderly as it seems to constantly change?

ajplus2 karma

Our food preferences evolve due to our experience and through exposure to different foods (and the experiences we have with them) as we age.

But another factor is that our sense of taste and sense of smell changes as we get older. For example, children have a much higher preference for sugar and sour than adults do.

And after our mid-50s many people start to experience some decline in their aroma sensitivity, which is what gives food flavor. This is also when our bitter sensitivity also starts to decline somewhat. Therefore, when we're in our golden years we can enjoy more bitter leafy greens but our desire to add condiments and salt to food can increase because of our waning flavor perception.

Being aware of these physiological changes, as well as the psychological factors, that go into our food preferences, can help us make the healthier food choices.

dudelikeshismusic1 karma

I'm visualizing a graph with "nutritional content" on one axis and "average taste response" on the other with a cluster of tasty, highly nutritious food items in the top right corner. Is there a "best diet" in terms of nutritional content vs taste? Basically, is there a group of foods that you can recommend that fully optimizes taste and nutrition?

Also, are there any other highly nutritious foods (like insects) that repulse us westerners that we should really consider getting over and adding to our diet?

Thanks!

ajplus2 karma

The best diet overall for health and tastiness is a Mediterranean-type diet, which includes lots of vegetables, fruits, olive oil, grains, beans, fish and moderate to low amounts of other animal sources. All of the foods in the Mediterranean diet can be prepared in very tasty ways, though tasty is, of course, subject to interpretation. In terms of what nutritious foods I think we should add to our diets, I think tofu is definitely something that we can eat more of. The great thing about tofu is that it doesn’t have much taste on it’s own, so you can prepare it in lots of delicious ways with spices, herbs, garlic etc. The issue that a lot of people have with tofu is perhaps its texture, but that can be altered by how you prepare it.

MichaelMoore921 karma

Very interesting job! So I’d like to know, considering we eat so much sugar in developed Countries, will humans eventually adapt to it in some way? Could we get to a point where eating large amounts of sugar most of our lives isn’t as damaging to health as it is to us at the moment?

ajplus2 karma

It is probably the case that our bodies will adapt to eating more sugar, but only up to a point.

Metabolic syndrome and diabetes will likely still be widespread, but maybe not as much as now.

Even in the short-term your body can adjust. That's what happened in the documentary "Supersize Me". The protagonist's blood levels came back down to being more within normal range after a few months of eating nothing but Big Macs. But in the long run this kind of diet is not at all healthy.

It is unlikely that our bodies will adapt so dramatically such that sugar doesn't give us cavities or weight gain. And if our diet isn't balanced then it will be unhealthy no matter what.