Children are to be fed bugs as part of a plan to get a new generation to switch from meat to insects – and potentially persuade their parents to follow their lead.

Pupils at four primary schools in Wales are to be offered insects to eat as part of a project to gauge children’s appetite for “alternative protein” such as crickets, grasshoppers, and mealworms.

Researchers hope their findings will give clues as to how best educate children on the environmental and nutritional benefits of edible insects across the UK, and potentially overseas – and, in turn, their parents, as the world looks to help the environment by cutting meat consumption.

The project, which starts this week, will use surveys, workshops, interviews and focus groups to explore young people’s understandings and experiences of alternative proteins.

The researchers have teamed up with teachers and hope many of the five to 11 year old’s in the study will be willing to taste some edible insects to see how they find them.

“We want the children to think about alternative proteins as real things for now, rather than just as foods for the future, so trying some of these foods is central to the research,” said Christopher Bear, of Cardiff University.

“Although edible insects are – for now – not sold widely in the UK, they form part of the diet of around 2 billion people worldwide. Much of this is in parts of the world where they are part of long-standing culinary traditions. And they are increasingly popular elsewhere,” he said.

The researchers stress that they will not be forcing children to eat insects.

But they hope to be able to offer a range of alternative proteins to try, if children wish to do so, as long as they have written parental consent.

These will include plant-based foods and may involve edible insects, depending on whether they have received ‘novel foods’ approval by the Food Standards Agency by that point.

They hope to offer them a product called VeXo, which combines insect- and plant-based proteins.

A 2020 study estimated that 9 million European consumers had eaten insects in 2019, and forecast that this would increase to 390 million by 2030, according to the International Platform of Insects for Food and Feed (IPIFF), the insect production charity.

They have been promoted by organisations such as the United Nations for their potential environmental and nutritional benefits, and as a potential contributor to global food security, Dr Bear pointed out.

Carl Evans, Headteacher of Roch Community Primary School in Pembrokeshire, which is taking part in the project, said: “There is an important connection between our local community, food production and wider global issues surrounding sustainable development.”

“These issues are important to children, but also difficult to make sense of and can often be confusing for them,” he added.

Verity Jones, of the University of the West of England in Bristol and who is also involved in the study, has previous experience of children and edible insects. She is confident they can be a powerful force for changing their parents’ behaviour in this matter.

“Many children have the power of pester, so in some cases can be great agents of dietary change within the family,” she said, adding that bits of insects find their way into many of the foods we eat daily.

“Everyone eats insects everyday – there’s over 30 parts of bugs in every 100g of chocolate … bread, fruit juices, hops … you name it, you’re eating insects,” she said.

“And I have found that, once children know that insects are already, by the very nature of processing, in many of the foods we eat; and are assured that they won’t become ill from eating them, they are very open to trying,” she said – although in most cases they are much happier eating them ground up than entire insects.

“All research, for adults and children, indicates whole insects are off-putting, but ground-up insects within foods are very acceptable. No one likes the idea of having a crunchy bit of wing or antenna between their teeth. But, in fact, children were more likely to choose food containing edible insects over usual meat products on a matter of sustainable credentials if given the option,” she said.

“Children can be squeamish, just like adults – but my previous research found that it’s all in the preparation and prior knowledge. If children are aware of where they are from, that they won’t make them ill, that they are actually healthy and in lots of food already (though in tiny amounts), this reduces the yuk factor and normalises it a bit more.”

“My research indicates, as with adults, that boys are more likely to be up for trying the new foods first – but overall both boys and girls seem to be willing to have a go in equal measure,” she said.

Many edible insects are rich in protein, antioxidants, vitamins and other nutrients and have a much lower environmental impact per kilogram than meat.

Mealworms, for example, produce less than 1 per cent as much greenhouse gas as cows and about 10 per cent of a pig’s smaller carbon hoof print. House crickets polluted even less, according to a study in the journal PLoS ONE.

Another study, in the journal of Cleaner Production, found that insect farms emit 75 per cent less carbon and use half as much water as poultry farms, per kg.

Consumers in the UK have shown an increased demand for healthy, sustainable diets, with a focus on reducing traditional meat products such as beef and chicken.

A recent study by the Finder research group found that over seven million adults in the UK follow a meat-free diet and a further six million intended to shift to vegetarian or vegan diets.

Meat-free diets were most prevalent among those aged 18-23. Most existing studies on attitudes to alternative proteins focus on adults; this new research fills an important gap in shifting the attention to children as important and influential consumers.

Edible insects have become much harder to get in the UK in the past two years after the EU introduced food regulations classing them as a “novel food”, meaning that they had to undergo new safety checks, including in the UK.

When the UK officially left the EU in early 2020, no transition for edible insects had been agreed, limiting sale to a handful of online retailers such as EatGrub.

However, a decision from the Food Standards Agency (FSA) next month is expected to allow them to be traded in supermarkets and other retailers across the UK temporarily – with full approval anticipated next year.

Michael Wight, head of food safety policy at the FSA, said in March: “We are aware that edible insects, as part of the alternative proteins market, can offer benefits, most notably for the environment.”

“We are working hard to support and advise businesses and trade bodies so that they can provide high quality dossiers and evidence as part of their novel foods applications.”