Irresistible Insects #4: Consumers' Sound Bites

Curious but cautious! What real Japanese consumers have to say about edible insects.

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Bzzzzzt! That’s the sound of the new issue of Market Shake’s insect product cycle landing in your inbox. This week we’ll hear from Japanese consumers about their thoughts on edible insects. 

Spoiler alert: Japan is not yet ready to chow down on crickets…but is willing to try!

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What does existing data tell us?

Very little market data exists for the edible insect category in Japan. So, we got creative and analyzed social noise, available academic papers, and also did our own small survey to bring fresh insights on the topic.

Here’s a summary of today’s post to get you craving crawlers!

  • Summary of existing data - shows the ick factor is strong in Japan.  Many consumers show aversion to edible insect products 

  • Our consumer survey - shows consumers are curious about the category. Consumers are willing to try products if they look appealing and taste good

  • Our insights - Increasing consumer awareness in Japan is key. Consumers need more opportunities to try edible insect products

  • Consumer interviews - suggest hiding traces of insects is the way to go. Interviewees are more likely to try products if insects are incorporated as powders, broths, etc.

Summary of Existing Data

Academic Surveys

Large companies have yet to conduct any market surveys on edible insects in Japan. Universities have, however! Here’s what they’ve found about Japanese consumer attitudes.

Mizuno (2016) surveyed over 900 people passing through Tokyo station between 2011 - 2015 about reasons they want to try edible insects. The survey showed that media coverage is a powerful driver for increasing consumer interest in edible insects, identifying a 10% surge between 2013 and 2015 in respondents who wanted to try insect-based products after seeing them in the media. Sustainable benefits also proved appealing to those surveyed. Respondents who wanted to eat insects in order to avoid a future food crisis increased from 5% to around 15%. Mizuno attributes this to the significant media coverage in Japan of the 2013 UN report that promoted insects as a food source. 

A survey from the same year published in the Journal of Japanese Society of Clinical Nutrition painted a bleaker picture. It found 90% of 115 female students have never tried and had no desire to try edible insects. 

Social Noise

What’s the Japanese web got to say about eating insects? 

Google search data for the past 5 years shows gradually increasing interest in edible insects, especially since 2020. This likely ties into growing consumer demand for health-related products since the pandemic started.

We found a lot of SNS activity in Japanese focuses on the novelty of whole insect products. A YouTube keyword search of “edible insects” reveals the Second most highly viewed video (in Japanese) in 2021, with 1.7 million views, is ranking of TAKEO’s whole insect products. Though the video focuses on insects as a novelty food, there are several positive comments about taste. 

A comparison of relevant Instagram hashtags suggests that consumer awareness about insect-based products is still low, especially when compared to other alt-products such as plant-based ones - which have much more buzz.

Market Shake’s Consumer Survey

We conducted an online survey with Japanese consumers, evenly split into male and female. Respondents were also diverse in terms of age and background.

At the very least, all respondents had heard of edible insect products, with TV and SNS being top drivers of awareness. 

80% of respondents replied affirmatively when asked if they would try edible-insect products. 70% of these responses said “yes, but it depends on shape, taste and price.” Companies bringing their insect-based product to the Japanese market should leverage consumers’ price-consciousness,  biases towards product aesthetics, and positive evaluations of taste.

The two main reasons for wanting to try insect-based products were their “healthy image” and “environmentally friendly” image. As we saw from previous issues, edible insect producers already focus product marketing on these areas, and should continue to do so!

The 20% of respondents who flatly refused to try any insect-based products gave the same answer even after reading a short paragraph about the sustainable and health benefits of insects.

Increasing consumer awareness in Japan is key 

While the “ick factor” and a tendency to view insects as a novelty exists in Japan as well, available data suggests consumers are curious about edible insects. An initial challenge is raising awareness about insect-based products so more consumers can have the opportunity to try them in Japan. 

There is a lot of activity to raise consumer awareness of edible insects going on in Japan already. Like we saw last week, organizations and companies are creating opportunities for consumers to sample edible insects. The “Insect Gourmet Festival” held in Tokyo in 2020 is one such example that attracted over 3,040 attendees.

Pop-up stores and events from companies such as ELLIE Inc’s Silk Food Lab are creating opportunities for customers to try insect-based foods and become aware that they exist as another option. Increasing awareness and access to insect-based products are key to the future of the market in Japan, where edible insects are still hard to find for consumers unless they look hard.

A large company such as MUJI promoting their own brand of insect-based products can also be expected to have positive effects on customer perception.

“MUJI’s entry has opened the market to the masses. I expect more large-scale corporations will join us to trigger further growth.”

Ryota Mitsuhashi, CTO TAKEO, MUJI’s cricket crackers are constantly sold out - here is why

Alongside increasing availability of products, the taste is another important factor. Companies such as ANTCICADA, which create gourmet, high-quality products from insects, are helping to tackle customer biases against the taste of insects. 

With that said, let’s hear what our consumers had to say about the prospect of edible insects!

Consumers’ feedback

Nearly all of the people we interviewed hadn’t tried insect-based products before, though the majority had heard of them from TV and media. Would they try insect products? A reluctant “maybe” is the answer - especially if products did a good job of concealing the insect form itself - say, in ramen broth or crackers, for example.

Unfortunately, however, the promise of the sustainability of eating insects didn’t really sway our interviewees. Price seemed to be a bigger concern, as respondents agreed that insect-based products would have to be low price before they would even consider trying them.

Yasushi, 70s, retired

Yasushi is retired and lives in Tokyo. He had never seen or heard of edible insect products, so we showed several pictures and explained what they were.

Yasushi was interested in learning more and also expressed willingness to try the products. 

I would like to try edible insects, at least once. Especially something like insect ramen which is a dish I like.

When we explained the health benefits of edible insect products to Yasushi, he said he was not interested. The thing that mattered most was if edible insect products were reasonably priced, preferably lower than competing products that didn’t contain insects.

Aiko, 60s, retired

I’ve seen edible insect products mentioned online but I’ve never encountered them in stores.

Aiko said that the idea and image of edible insects are “healthy to her”, and that is their biggest appeal. When asked whether she would ever eat an edible insect product, she refused.

Even though they are a healthy product, there are supplements and other health-foods I can consume that have similar benefits but that don’t contain any insects.

We showed several pictures of edible insect products including pasta, whole insects, and chips. Aiko most liked the look of the chips because it looked like their texture had a lot of crunch.

Darcy, 50s, married

Darcy is a strict vegan who religiously follows his diet. 

As a strict vegan, I would not consume any insect-based products because they are not plant-based.

In terms of his general perception of insect-based products, Darcy felt that processed products are much more appealing to the mass market as they go some way to overcoming the ick factor.

Were I not strictly vegan, I am probably like many other people in that I have a natural aversion to eating insects in any form anyways. If I had to eat a product, I would say that anything dried is better than anything wet (because wet products like the minced meat alternatives remind me more of the insects than dried products).

Tak, 40s, married

Tak works in finance in Tokyo. He has seen T.V. spots. and read about edible insects online.

The idea of eating insects is not very attractive to me, but I know they are a traditional food in some parts of Japan from T.V.. I would definitely be willing to try some products containing insects, especially if I cannot see them. Cricket crackers, or maybe chocolate like MUJI’s is a safe start. I would like to try ramen too, I think, because I love ramen, and it’s quite common to see ramen chains offering unique variations, like vegan ramen. 

For Tak, sustainability has become an important issue in recent years as SDGs have been increasingly promoted by Japanese media and his company.

The sustainability of insects as food does appeal to me. I think we in Japan need to do more to promote sustainable food production and consumption for ourselves and future generations.

Sakura, 40s, single

Sakura is a sales manager living in Tokyo. She has no particular interest in health-oriented diets or foods because she views them as expensive.

Sakura has never heard of or seen edible insect products before. We showed several examples of edible insect products, and she had this to say:

I wouldn’t like to try an edible insect product. If I had to, taste would be the most important aspect for me. Though the picture of insect ramen that you showed was tempting because my favourite food is ramen. Ultimately though, the moment I knew a product contained insects, it would be a turn-off. Perhaps an insect-based seasoning or paste would be palatable for me, but it's a real maybe….

Ken, 30s, single

Ken is a businessman living and working in Tokyo. He loves cooking, especially Italian, and enjoys food for its cultural association.

Ken was strongly averse to the appearance of insects.

I would never eat insect-based foods. Whole insects look unappetising, especially the stomach of an insect. I saw roasted insects when I visited Vietnam but I didn’t try them because of their appearance.

Ken also rejected the idea of incorporating powdered insects in food because he prefers to eat foods the way they are traditionally prepared.

For me, food is all about culture. Modern Japanese food is made from recipes that have been passed down through generations. If you start to replace the protein in a dish with insect-based protein then it spoils the experience of that food for me, I think.

Ayano, 30s, single

Ayano is a businesswoman. She lives with her family in Tokyo. She had never tried insect-based products but had seen them on TV.

Ayano said she would try insect-based products as long as they didn’t resemble insects, and if the insects were not visible.

I tried frogs-legs recently, but they didn’t look like actual frogs-legs. If I was given a dish and told it contained insects but there was nothing insect-shaped in the dish, I would try it. Like with the frog’s legs, I was told they tasted like chicken, so I tried it. If I know insects taste a little like shrimp, then I would be more inclined to try them.

Ayano’s comments show that edible insect producers can make their products more appealing to Japanese consumers by providing information about flavour to remove some of the uncertainty surrounding what insects might taste like.

Rina, 26, single

Rina is a car saleswoman. She enjoys a varied diet but has no interest in alternative protein products. 

Rina has seen edible insects in stores, namely MUJI. She has also tried one of MUJI’s cricket crackers after being offered one by her colleague, which she enjoyed.

I can eat an insect product if there’s no visible traces of the insect. The moment I get the feeling of some aspect of an insect, I can't eat it.

When asked about the health benefits of insects, Rina was uninspired.

I’m not very health conscious so the health benefits of insects don’t interest me. I care more about whether insect products are cheap and delicious.

Rikako, 22, single

Rikako is a student. She currently lives with her parents, and she sometimes has opportunities to try alternative products such as plant-based burgers as her mother buys them. 

In the case of insects, however, Rikako has never tried or seen insect-based products. She was reluctant to try them at first.

I think insects are…icky. Their appearance creeps me out so I don’t want to eat them!!

We showed some images of products made from insects including cricket ramen, cricket bolognese, and cricket crackers. Rikako had a more positive response to products that incorporated insects as an ingredient.

The ramen and bolognese look tasty. They look just like normal, so I think I would try them. Regarding the cricket crackers, they have a cricket on the label…so it puts me off!

Interestingly, Rikako’s attitude to the ramen picture changed when she noticed a dried cricket garnish. “Oh, I didn’t see that cricket there….maybe not..”

Overall, our interviewees weren’t eager to try edible insect products. They did, however, show a strong preference for products that incorporate insects whilst also concealing them. Developing products that Japanese consumers are familiar with and consume daily may be a way to initially hook customers. Several interviewees responded positively to the idea of insect ramens or pasta, for example. Equally, ensuring products are competitively priced with similar non-insect-based variations is essential to help Japanese consumers try insect-based products.

That’s all, folks! 

Stay tuned for more next week, where we will take a tour of the fascinating and creative places where consumers can unearth the insect-based products in Japan that we discussed here today!

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