For the past few days I have been walking around asking my friends a random question: “Have you ever eaten any insects?” Before they answered, my question was usually met with a look of confusion. Clearly this is not a question or a subject usually addressed, or at least not in England.
This spontaneous questioning helped me identify two different scenarios among my friends. Most of my English, European and Western friends answered with a resounding ‘NO’ followed by ‘disgusting!’, ‘so gross!’, ‘eww!’, ‘ick!’ and more; clearly the “yuck factor” was presented. The small percentage of these friends that have tried insects before are the ones that have had an international experience or have been dared to do it in a random moment: as a volunteer in Zambia, during an exchange student program in Brazil or as a dare during childhood. On the other side, I received the opposite reaction from my friends coming from Latin America or another country from the Global South. Most of them have tried different insects and they promptly responded to the question with excitement ‘yeah!’, ‘definitely!, ‘wacky!. Colombians eat fried ants (nucú o chicatana), that apparently taste like peanuts; while grasshoppers (chapulines) are popular in Mexico.
As weird as eating insects might sound, ‘entomophagy’ is a regular practice around the world. Some cultures, regardless of wealth , eat them as a primary source of protein instead of eating meat; 90% of Zimbabweans have adopted this practice. While for the developed countries this remains a taboo or an exotic practice adopted by the daring and adventurous.
There are 1,900 edible insect species worldwide. So, why not eat insects?
An edible insect tour around Mexico
In Mexico there are more than 500 species of edible insects. Every state of the country has its own culture and tradition, it is then not uncommon to find a variety of ancient dishes based on or containing insects.
This city commonly eats ‘chapulines’ (grasshoppers). Eaten since pre-Hispanic times and found in other southern states of Mexico, chapulines can be eaten in tamales and tostadas. Also these insects are often fried and used as snacks prepared with hot sauce or chili and salt.
‘Escamoles or ahuahutle’ (ant eggs) are well known as Mexican caviar; this delicacy usually comes at high price due to their rarity. This dish is cooked with butter and herbs and is served with tortillas. Prior to the tenth century, in Tenochtitlan, the native runners brought fresh ahuahutle for breakfast to the Aztec kings during the ceremonies dedicated to the god Xihtecutli.
In this city El día del Jumil (popular festivity) is carried in remembrance of ‘jumiles’ (small stinky bugs) as protectors of the people and connection with the gods. During the celebration the insects are eaten alive, fried or roasted with spicy sauce or cinnamon. Jumiles are high in protein, the amount they contain is very similar to beef.
For Mayan families dishes with ‘avispas’ (wasps) are similar to an exquisite steak. Is very difficult to find avispas combs, people that had them before wish to eat them again, some just do it once or twice in a lifetime. These are eaten roasted and present a sweet taste.
The rural communities on this city eat ‘larvas de mariposa’ (butterfly larvae) as part of their diet hundreds of years ago. People goes up in the threes to collect the larvae, the habitants of Huaquechula say if you do not collect them with the hand the taste is different. A high amount of protein, nutrients, iron and vitamin B can be found in larvae.
‘Gusanos de maguey’ are used in the preparation of tequila and mezcal bottles. These worms are removed from the leaves of maguey agaves.
In rural communities insects are commonly used as a nutritional supplement to diet when bean and maize reserves are scarce. Likewise, Mexican indigenous people have a deep knowledge regarding the life cycle of insects; they can understand in which season or under what circumstances it is better to collect or eat every kind of insect (e.g. escamoles are available during rains).
Eat insects… save the planet!
People from the south of the world, like in Mexico, are used to eat insects by culture or tradition. Along with this, the United Nations promote that countries from the west do the same: “Eating insects is efficient, good for the environment, improves animal welfare and reduces the risk of disease in humans”.
For every kilogram of chicken that we eat we waste 3,000 liters of water and 1 kilogram of beef represents around 30,000 liters. Insects require less water than any other animals to be produced, adding insects to our diet would result in saving large amounts of water worldwide. There are also direct benefits to our health that are significant. Some species of insects are gluten free and low-carb, meaning that people with health issues could have a high source of protein without any negative repercussions. At the same time, eating insects represent a source of non-genetically modified food and pose significantly reduce risk of passing on diseases.
Surveys suggest that only 2.5% of the western population is willing to eat insects, however in countries such as Belgium 12.8% of the males and 6.3% of the females affirm they will adopt insects as meat substitute. You might be wondering ‘how can I implement these changes in my life?’ Walking across the park and searching for insects is definitely not a good idea! Some super markets in Europe have already begun to sell products containing insects such as bottles of termite oil, insect flour bread, bags of cricket meal among others.
If you are still part of the ‘yuck factor’ population you might want to check out some TED talks related to the subject, whereas if you are adventurous and would like to go on the next level some insect cookbooks might be helpful for you.
If you are still part of the population that would subscribe to the ‘yuck factor’ you my want to check out some TED talks on the benefits of insect consumption. However, if you are already adventurous, why not dive straight in with some insect cookbooks?