Team Ento / Royal College of Art & Imperial College London
Ento – The Art of Eating Insects
Ento – The Art of Eating Insects
A provocative subject with immense relevance. The fact that this design addresses the perception and consumption side of the question earned it much praise.
Ento – The Art of Eating Insects
We wanted to see how design could facilitate the introduction of insects into the western diet. It’s not just about introducing a new food, it’s about understanding human perceptions and psychology, then using the design of innovative experiences and strategic thinking to drive cultural change.
We have created a roadmap of products and services for the next 10 years. Under our brand: ‘Ento’; we have designed a succession of foods and eating experiences that will gently challenge our cultural taboo. And perhaps by 2020, fresh grasshoppers will be a regular sight in your local supermarket.2. The Brief: Summarize the problem you set out to solve. What was the context for the project, and what was the challenge posed to you? Who is the at-risk population, and what behavior do you seek to change in this population?
Will you be eating insects by 2020?
This project is the outcome of our motivation to tackle the issue of food security. Increasing global food demand will outpace agricultural productivity over the next 50 years. Meat production is the most inefficient form of agriculture, paving the way for insects as a sustainable food source, as they are highly efficient at turning feed into protein. They also don’t produce greenhouse gases and require much less land to farm – in fact, the total ‘foodprint’ of grasshoppers is just one tenth that of beef.
As good as insects seem on paper, if you place a locust burger on most people’s dinner table, they would not be very happy! Clearly, perceptions towards insects must change before they can be sold in supermarkets. Our challenge was to identify what experiences must be designed over the next ten years to make this happen – to gain total acceptance of insects as a commodity food source.
The whole world is affected by what we eat. This is particularly so for western diets, where much of the food we eat has embodied impact far beyond our own geographical borders. Thus we seek to modify western eating habits, not through restricting our diet, but by diversifying it. We wish that by 2012, insects will be viewed as a everyday source of protein, much like beef, chicken or pulses; rather than a creepy-crawly animal. Moreover, we want this food to be tasty, desirable and above-all, normal.3. The Intent: What point of view did you bring to the project, and were there additional criteria that you added to the brief?
Whilst there are many people working in the field of entomophagy (the consumption of insects), most are focused on the logistics of farming and supplying insects in large volumes. Others are creating ‘gimmicky’ recipes that rely upon their novelty for interest, but lose attraction over time.
Currently there is a major cultural taboo against eating insects. The idea of eating insects is generally imagined to be dirty, gooey and unsafe. None of these preconceptions are true, but it doesn’t change the fact that edible insects are certainly not seen as an exciting future food! We realised that changing these beliefs would be a major challenge.
As design students, our new point of view was to address the problem of acceptance of insects as a design issue. We believed that we could challenge the taboo with carefully designed eating experiences and product interventions.
Our main brief was therefore to design experiences that would ease the western mainstream into eating insects as an everyday food. In addition to this, we wanted to make sure that all of our future-visions were realised as edible, delicious food. We also aimed to address the challenge of envisioning production systems that would be capable of farming enough insects to deliver our concepts.4. The Process: Describe the rigor that informed your project. (Research, ethnography, subject matter experts, materials exploration, technology, iteration, testing, etc., as applicable.) What stakeholder interests did you consider? (Audience, business, organization, labor, manufacturing, distribution, etc., as applicable)
1. Initial research and ethnography
Our first test, fried locusts served at a London restaurant, gave us confidence that edible insects could be accepted by Western cultures. All four of us tried them and were impressed by the taste and texture.
We then started experimenting with other people’s perceptions. We cooked a spread of mocked-up (though the subjects didn’t know this!) insect dishes that varied from very abstract to very apparent. Most people were more accepting of abstract dishes like the bug-flour biscuit. This powerful abstraction effect became weaker only when the insect parts were obviously visible. A minimal barrier layer of breadcrumbs was enough for many people to find the food appetizing.
The power of abstraction was a critical insight for our later food design. However, this experiment also identified many negative perceptions that we would need to address if people were to accept edible insects.
2. Analyzing and creating a new food culture
In order for people to fully accept something new, it has to be embedded in a context that they can access. Thus we had to generate a culture surrounding insects as food.
To identify the elements of food culture, we set out to find what turns a series of ingredients into a food we recognize: what differentiates a sandwich from two slices of bread with filling? We organized our findings into different parameters: personas, scenarios, food-format, ingredients, experience, and motivations.
We studied the strategies we found in other food introductions (such as sushi) and developed a model of insect food culture, which represents the evolution of this culture in time. The conclusions from this exercise informed our strategy for targeting consumers.
3. Materials and technology exploration
After our initial cooking experiments, it was clear we needed to understand insects as an ingredient, so we turned to a technique called molecular food-pairing. This is a mapping that pairs ingredients that should theoretically complement each other based on their chemical composition. Using this method, we created a database of ingredients that could potentially be used with the insects to create new recipes.
We then collaborated with chef-in-training Kim Insu, a student at Le Cordon Bleu in London. Using our knowledge of insects combined with Kim’s expert cooking skills, we were able to perfect new recipes that tasted great and also redefined insects as a new type of food.
4. Manufacturing and subject matter experts
Our manufacturing solution was a flexible network of urban farms; scalable in order to cope with the varying levels of demand in our roadmap.
Unfortunately, the custodians of existing insect production facilities (for reptile and bird food) are extremely secretive about their methods. Thus, our concept for a modular urban farm was created based upon insights from hobby insect-breeders, entomology academics at Imperial College London, and our own research. We kept a prototype locust breeding unit in our college workshop, to investigate how to keep insects fed and happy, as well as how to process them humanely.5. The Value: How does your project earn its keep in the world? What is its value? What is its impact? (Social, educational, economic, paradigm-shifting, sustainable, environmental, cultural, gladdening, etc.)
We are addressing the topic of food sustainability and security. It is against this backdrop that edible insects offer an exciting alternative to resource-hungry and carbon-intensive livestock farming. Insects are extremely efficient at turning feed into meat and can be farmed at a very high density. This means that their embodied energy is low—a tenth of that of beef cattle—and that at high volumes they are very cost efficient. When farmed in urban environments, they also do not compete for other agricultural land uses.
Many of our unsustainable consumption patterns stem from a disconnect between ourselves and the land that sustains us. By placing insect farms directly in the city, we are connecting city-dwellers more tightly to their food supply. We would even propose ‘Ento school meals’, where children raise insects in their classroom as a learning tool that also forms a closed loop to their canteen.
Insect meat has major nutritional benefits compared with beef: typically 48% of beef is fat, while only 16% of grasshopper meat is fat, making it a much healthier source of protein.
In addition to these benefits, we are introducing an entirely new type of food into the market – which gives consumers more choice and variety. And if ever we find our food choices limited in the future by climate change or energy availability, we will have introduced and popularized a tasty, sustainable alternative.6. How can you be sure that the values you are advancing are desired by the community you are working with?
Interestingly, we are sure that the values that we are putting forward today (in 2011) are *not* desired by the community we’re working with (mainstream eaters in the west). It is this fact that has motivated our entire project.
However, while studying food introductions in the UK, we found a very valuable precedent in sushi. 30 years ago, tourist guides warned British tourists about the strange and off-putting Japanese habit of eating raw fish; now you can buy it at Boots and Marks & Spencers, two quintessentially British retailers. We think that in as little as 10 years, our values in sustainable protein will be shared by the mainstream.
We are confident in the achievability of our ‘insect food culture’ model, in which we introduce insects as a food via an entire social movement. The food is backed up by design interventions in everything that comprises a food culture: personas (who); scenarios (when and where); food format, ingredients, tools, and experience (how and what); and drivers and motivations (why). We have made sure that these parameters can evolve and adapt over time, to match the public’s changing expectations of our food.7. How will your project remain economically and operationally sustainable in the long term?
We have created a prototype business plan that spans the length of our vision: from now until 2020, pairing our target market’s motivations with the natural growth of a new food business.
We start by focusing on the adventurous eater. These customers could be targeted at festivals and markets – situations where many people are already primed for a surprising food experience. Based on this initial foray into the marketplace, we would hope to generate and attract funds for growth.
Once we have built up enough hype and resources, we would open a restaurant, where we would focus on the experience itself: taste, aesthetic, service. Here, we would have a controlled environment where we could introduce our new food as well as the associations that we would like to go with it.
The restaurant would bridge the gap as the novelty hype decreases, allowing us to focus on the sustainable, ethical and nutritional value of edible insects. This would allow us to introduce a range of supermarket products, which would at first consist of ready-made meals, but would evolve over time to become normal, everyday ingredients.
This business model is based upon precedent of other ‘artificial’ food introductions as well as foods that have ‘naturally’ jumped the cultural gap between nations.
Our modular insect farming network would scale up to match our ambitious business schedule, providing modest amounts of insects to our festival stall at the beginning, and increasing to cope with our restaurants and eventual supermarket launches.