Mm, calamari.
Mm, calamari. Geoff Peters / CC BY 2.0

Which sounds more appealing: Biscotti alla farina de vermi or a mealworm cookie? While both terms are used to describe the same insect-based sweet, a recent study published in Nature Sustainability explores why someone may be more enticed by the sound of one description versus the other.

The researchers’ goal was to investigate how to spark interest in environmentally sustainable foods—such as recycled wastewater—that can stir up strong feelings. Getting people to eat insect-based dishes and artificial meats is a challenge, particularly in Europe and the United States. And part of that might have to do with how they’re described.

Previous findings suggest that presenting emotionally charged situations in a foreign language can decrease people’s emotional judgments and responses to them. So, for this study, researchers described three sustainable dietary options—artificial meats, recycled water, and insect-based cookies—to participants in both their native tongue and second language. The idea, they write, is that using a foreign language keeps foods from eliciting disgust from skeptical diners.

Their assumption was correct. The willingness of the native German speakers to try artificial meat nearly doubled when described in another language. Similarly, native Italian speakers’ aversion to drinking recycled water dropped considerably when presented in a foreign language. Curiously, the study found that the effect that language had on actual consumption in the case of the contentious recycled water was negligible. Native Dutch speakers were more inclined to reach for the water if they were thirsty, regardless of the language used to describe it.

Part of this effect might be explained by how humans associate language with emotion, especially in the West. Since foreign languages are often learned in classrooms, they can lack the ephemeral and emotional context that comes with a native tongue. “By using a foreign language, you take away some of the emotionality attached to ‘insects,’” the study’s lead author, Janet Geipel, told The University of Chicago.

While not tested in the study, this line of reasoning may also apply to picky eaters of all kinds. So the next time your friend balks at the sound of squid, try enticing them with calamari instead.

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