southern Mexico. Don’t knock it until you try it!
When I’m in Oaxaca, the state in southern Mexico where Carlos Castaneda set several of his iconic books on Toltec shamanism, I eat local. I love the native chocolate, wiped in hot water and served in a handmade pottery bowl (without sugar) instead of a mug. And, I crave tacos de chapulines.
Chapulines, plural for chapulín, are grasshoppers of the genus Sphenarium that are a common food in the highlands of southern Mexico, especially Oaxaca. The name derives from the Nahuatl word chapolimeh. Nahuatl is the language of the Aztecs.
The ancient Aztecs didn’t just eat grasshoppers; they were gourmets of all sorts of edible bugs. They dined on beetles, ants, and spiders, and garnished dishes with butterfly wings. Mexico has 549 kinds of insects catalogued as edible. And, they’re nutritious!
Nature’s Six-Legged Protein Powerhouses
Edible insects are a natural renewable resource that provides high protein food for many ethnic groups in Mexico. I’ve eaten grasshoppers, beetles, ants, and agave grubs, and found them not only palatable, but some, like chapulines, are delicious. In the central highlands of Mexico, villagers consume as many as 30 different kinds of insects collected locally.
A 100-gram serving of chapulines tacos have 28 grams of protein. That’s the protein equivalent of a 226-gram steak. They have only four grams of fat, plus they’re loaded with minerals and other nutrients. All bugs are high in protein, but some like grubs and mealworms also have a lot of fat.
Besides being good protein sources, bugs are also rich in iron. Two silkworm larvae contain 10 times more iron than beef. Insects are also good sources of zinc and copper, and thiamin (vitamin B1).
The U.N. favors dried bugs as a food supplement to feed the worlds’ hungry. Edible insects are promoted as a low-fat, high-protein food for people, pets and livestock. The U.N. contends that a bug diet is good for the environment by reducing greenhouse gas emissions and livestock pollution, and helps third world economies by creating jobs.
Wild Harvesting Won’t Fill Demand
With a population explosion in Mexico and other developing nations, picking bugs for lunch has grown to meet demand. Business is booming. When native wild harvesting leads to over collecting, however, insect populations plummet. Some bugs are already endangered.
Ethnobiologist Julieta Ramos-Elorduy, a professor at the Institute of Biology at the National University of Mexico in Mexico City and author of Creepy Crawly Cuisine: The Gourmet Guide to Edible Insects, is concerned about the increasing human population and the over-collection of bugs.
Wild insects also carry diseases, and they can be laden with pesticides, as well as heavy metals like lead and cadmium. The only viable alternative to wild harvesting is bug farms.
In Thailand, they raise edible crickets. In China, they farm scorpions for the table. Thai scientists are producing a protein food supplement that can be sprinkled over meals.
The Future of Insect Cuisine
In Utah, the bug company Chapul is already producing cricket bars.
In the Netherlands, Nordic Foods Lab, a leader in gourmet sustainable foods, produces bug foodie delights like moth mousse whipped with hazelnut milk, and cricket broth with a side of grasshopper garum sauce.
Insect foodies describe the texture and flavors as “delicate.” I have to agree. My experiences eating bugs has been not only interesting, but delightful and flavorful.
You’ll certainly hear more about insect protein to feed the world’s poor and hungry. But, don’t be surprised if you soon see bug protein powder and insect power bars at your local health food market, as well!