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Bug burgers and medicine from sewage: It's not queasy being green - study

Fuseworks Media
Fuseworks Media

Would you take medicine that’s been reclaimed from sewage? Munch on an insect burger, or a gnarled, bulbous, multi-limbed carrot?

If you just choked on your cornflakes, you’re not alone.

There is growing awareness that climate change requires a shift towards consumption of sustainable alternatives like these, but a recent New Zealand-UK study suggests marketers will have to work to overcome this ‘yuck factor’ first - even for self-avowed greenies.

Previous research, the study authors write, shows western consumers "want their protein from creatures with four legs not six… their foods and medicines to be natural, not manufactured; and their apples to be shiny, not blemished". But such selective consumption habits come at a cost: research in the US has estimated that as much as 50 percent of all food produce is thrown away due to a "cult of perfection".

What role does disgust play in all this, wondered University of Auckland Professor Nathan Consedine, University of Sheffield research fellow Dr Philip Powell and University of Surrey senior lecturer Dr Chris Jones.

"Disgust is a ‘basic’ emotional reaction that evolved to motivate the avoidance of potential contaminants - you could think of it as originally being a ‘don’t eat that’ emotion," says Professor Consedine, from the Department of Psychological Medicine in the Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences.

"So it stands to reason that disgust may be relevant to the avoidance of foods that are unusual in appearance, taste, or smell, as they may be seen as risky" adds Powell.

In the study, published in the scientific journal Food Quality and Preference, 510 adult participants (half women, half men; all UK residents) were shown a series of pairs of ‘normal’ and ‘alternative looking’ products via an online survey. The product categories were fruits, vegetables, insect-based foods, drinks with ingredients reclaimed from sewage or medicines with ingredients from sewage.

Participants were asked how much they would be willing to pay for the alternative products, and to rate the pairs in terms of which was tastier, healthier, more natural, visually appealing and nutritional. Results provided the strongest evidence yet that disgust puts people off sustainable alternatives across all five categories examined, and offered some clues as to why - and to how marketers could counteract the ‘yuck factor’.

Sure enough, even after taking into account factors like pro-environmental attitudes, the researchers found that people who get grossed out more easily (technically, have a greater ‘disgust propensity’) were less willing to pay for atypical (AKA, weird looking) products.

People’s evaluations of the alternative products explained about half of this effect. Specifically, for fruit and vegetables, it was anticipated taste, visual appeal and perceived naturalness that drove feelings of disgust; for reclaimed sewage-based products, it was perceived health risk and naturalness; for insect-based products, perceived taste and naturalness.

The implications for marketers are clear, says Professor Consedine, who has been studying the role of emotions - and particularly disgust - in health for nearly two decades.

"Targeting the sort of evaluations people make about food may be one way to increase people’s willingness to pay for atypical food products. Remember: these products are nutritionally as valuable as their typical counterparts, may be more ‘natural’, and have environmental advantages in terms of their production. Emphasising this to consumers may be a good place to start. Similarly, given that exposure tends to reduce disgust over time, plenty of free samples and in-store tasting may help increase consumption."

The researchers would next like to do experimental studies to see whether people are less willing to actually eat these sorts of foods in the lab.

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