[published in The Ecologist 8/10]
In Mexico, insects have been an integral part of people’s diet for thousands of years. When horses, wolly mammoths, camels, antelopes and other large mammals became extinct in Central Mexico around 7000 BC, people needed another steady source of protein. Insects fit the bill perfectly. The indigenous groups in Mexico had no word specifically for insects, instead referring to them as “the meat we eat.” When Europeans arrived in Mexico, although they deigned to consume certain edible insects, especially during Lent, in general these heavy meat eaters considered eating insects a barbaric, pagan practice and believed that creepy crawlers were the devil’s helpers.
And, yet, a case could be made that insects are man’s best friend and that humans couldn’t survive without them. Insects perform many of the basic functions necessary to maintain life on this planet, including recycling dead organic matter, creating topsoil suitable for plant life, and aiding plants in the pollination process. They also provide a plentiful source of food for animals and even humans. Within central and southern Mexico there are thousands of species of insects, about 500 of these fit for human consumption. Of these, almost 100 edible species are eaten and commercialized throughout the country, including grasshoppers, worms, ants, bees, butterflies, grubs, gnats, flies, mosquitoes, wasps and beetles, as well as their eggs, caterpillars and larvas.
Edible insects are an excellent source of protein, calcium, vitamins and minerals, and they even contain more healthy polyunsaturated fat than fish or fowl. One hundred grams of dried fly is made up of 54 grams of protein, almost 50 milligrams of iron and important quantities of essential amino acids and B vitamins. Stinkbugs have a high iodine content and are a good source of riboflavin and niacin. While only one-tenth of all food eaten by beef cattle is converted into meat, insects convert food to meat at a much higher rate and, as a result, offer more protein per pound than any bird or mammal. Grasshoppers provide twice as much protein as beef while a single earthworm provides the nutritional equivalent of 50 grams of meat.
Eating insects instead of animals could do great things not just for peoples’ diet and health but for the planet, too. Insects are infinitely less inexpensive to breed and harvest than animals, they are readily available almost everywhere on the planet (and thus very little fossil fuel is consumed to transport them to market), they don’t need to be refrigerated, they don’t lose their nutritional value even after being cooked or when dried out, and they need no added chemicals or machinery to reproduce or grow. In addition, insects are blessed with the ability to reproduce way faster even than rabbits. A female cricket can lay up to 1,500 eggs in one month, termites lay over thirty thousand eggs a day, while ants can pump out over three hundred thousand a day. All of this makes insects the ‘greenest’ meat on the planet.
Being that insects have been around so long, are so well adapted to life on earth, have such short life spans and reproduce so often and in such great numbers, all species of insects should be positively flourishing. Unfortunately, this is not the case with edible insects in Mexico, where the numbers of the most commonly consumed insects are dropping like flies. Several dozens species of edible insects in Mexico could be threatened with extinction if forests continue to be converted into timber and are paved over by urban sprawl, and if lakes continue to be polluted, over-exploited and dried out.
Perhaps the greatest current risk to the survival of several species of edible insects, however, is the rising popularity of insects among fine diners. Dr. Ramos Elorduy, one of the world’s foremost expert on edible insects and a researcher at the Biology Institute of the UNAM in Mexico City, is the author of Creepy Crawly Cuisine: The Gourmet Guide to Edible Insects, published in 1998. Although she is still a staunch promoter of insects as food, Dr. Ramos Elorduy has seen first hand how certain species have become depleted over the years due to food trends.“Sales of edible insects, both in Mexico and internationally, are continually increasing. In major cities around the world, including Tokyo, Sydney, NYC and Hong Kong, insects are commercialized by Japanese or US companies who buy them for pennies in Mexico and elsewhere and sell them for dollars in gourmet stores or five-star restaurants.”
The success of these fat, juicy insects at the dinner table, however, is thinning out the ranks of edible insects in the field. Due to the scarcity of the most-valued insects, less succulent species are now often being substituted, with a loss of taste, texture and nutritional value. Even when you get the insect you pay for, its integrity is often compromised before it reaches your plate. Besides threatening their survival, the widespread use of herbicides and pesticides, as well as a steady diet of pollution and human waste, load insects down with a heavy burden of toxic chemicals. The presence of lead and other toxins in edible insects makes eating them a risk and has made exporting them more difficult. Lead levels in some grasshoppers have been found to contain as much as one hundred times the maximum recommended dose of lead for young children and pregnant women.
To ensure clean, toxic-free grasshoppers for human consumption, Dr. Ramos Elorduy has developed a patented, toxic-free breeding method for grasshoppers which she hopes one day will be adopted as a standard insect breeding environment. As she points out, in order to preserve the hundreds of species of edible insects, in order to produce enough healthy edible insects to feed increasingly larger populations of people, ancient traditions and innovative technology will have to come together with fair trade and environmentally progressive strategies.
Chapulines (grasshoppers) are perhaps the most common edible insect in Mexico. They are hunted mostly in alfalfa fields with the use of long nets. In Oaxaca, grasshoppers are so common they are nibbled as finger food at baseball games and as a salty snack in cantinas, with lemon and chile often sprinkled onto them, and even come served as a topping on pizza.
Gusanos de maguey pop up on the menu in many up-scale restaurants. These gusanos are not actually worms but rather butterfly larva. In the state of Hidalgo, from September to January, these gusanos are so common they are sold alongside the highway in plastic bags. Maguey plants, often confused with cactii, not only give shelter and sustenance to this larva, they also provide the precious sap that is made into pulque, tequila and mezcal. These gusanos de maguey are the insect that floats on the bottom of mezcal bottles (Mexicans usually don’t swallow it, gringos do), and are often ground up and added to powdered chile to accompany shots.
Chinicuiles, or red maguey worms, are a different butterly larva that live in the roots of the same plant. They tend to be smaller and are considered less of a delicacy than the white worms. Both are often wrapped in leaves of the plant and cooked over coals or on a comal. Other butterfly larva that live in corn stalks, mezquite, or several other varieties of trees (including the one that gives the chia seeds), are also edible, and the larva that reside in cedar trees are very large, and just a couple of them are enough to fill up a taco.
Escamoles, the larvae of giant black ants harvested from the roots of magueys, are considered a delicacy and are often referred to as insect caviar. The larva are white little balls with the consistency of coagulated milk that melt in your mouth like butter (in which are their normally fried).
Flying red ants called chicatanas swarm onto lampposts and electrical posts in the state of Guerrero during the month of June, falling to the ground as they die. People pick them up off the street, bring them home and grill them. Once cooked they can last for months. In certain areas of Veracruz, people use the abdomens of these large ants to give their salsa a little extra texture.
Axayácatl, a water fly known as boatmen, are caught in nets thrown over lakes and are usually eaten fried. Their eggs, called ahuautle, are an even more prized catch. The Aztec Emperor Montezuma was brought freshly caught ahuautle daily for his breakfast, while people today usually eat them cooked in egg batter or fried, and also in tamales and mixiotes, and used instead of breadcrumbs for tortas.
Jumiles and chumiles are stinkbugs found mostly in the state of Guerrero, where they are used as an ingredient in salsas and are eaten in tacos, often still alive.
Chicatanas, black reproductive ants mostly found in Guerrero, which curl up into little armored balls. Most expensive of all insects due to the fact that they are only available for a few weeks a year, in November. In addition, people in Mexico also have a long tradition of eating fleas, butterflies, dragonflies, mosquitoes, flies and lice, though these don’t pop up on many menus.