The consumption of insects is an alternative to fight against food insecurity and reduce the environmental impact of livestock farming. Many studies point to the benefits of this diet, which is part of the culture of certain regions of the world. In Mexico, they are a fundamental part of its century-old gastronomy.
At the San Juan market, one of the best known in Mexico City, tourists and locals stare with curiosity at the varied food offerings displayed on the counters of certain stalls: aphids, beetles, maguey worms, small spiders which are served fried or chocolate covered scorpions. A diversified gastronomic menu based on insects and other arthropods endemic to the country, but also exotic species, such as the Madagascar cockroach.
While there are approximately 1,681 species of these food-grade invertebrates worldwide, Mexico has nearly a third of them. “In our catalog we have reported up to 605 speciesexplains José Manuel Pino Moreno, a biologist specializing in entomology at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), who has been dedicated to his research for more than 40 years.
This country is one of the richest regions in edible insects in the world. For years, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has recommended the consumption of these animals as a means of combating hunger and other economic and social conflicts.
Climate crisis and food security
The climate crisis is impacting food security in many parts of the world, with increasingly frequent and intense droughts and floods causing persistent problems in the global supply chain, particularly in low-income countries. income.
According to a study published in the journal ScienceInsect farming could not only help alleviate the above challenge, but also boost developing economies. Indeed, in 2015, the European Commission identified certain insects as a new food under regulation and, recently, gave the green light to the commercialization of the insect. Purchased domesticusthe house cricket.
While most Western countries show a certain rejection of this culinary alternative, in Asia, Africa and Latin America, eating insects is a custom that is part of their cultural heritage. In Mexico, for example, the tradition of entomophagy is deeply rooted, featuring dishes made from bedbugs, moths, ants, wasps, and termites, among many others. “And also the products made with them, such as sauces, salts, vinaigrettes or ice creams,” Pino points out.
The most dominant group on Earth and the conquerors of virtually every habitat in existence – from oil spills to remote salt mines – the benefits brought by these animals are many. According to their consumers, insects are clean, tasty, safe and nutritious: excellent candidates for supplementing other diets. Raising them does not require a lot of resources, especially when compared to meat production.
The consumption of insects is an alternative with environmental and health benefits
The maintenance of intensive industries such as agriculture or animal husbandry implies a deterioration of ecosystems, unlike the breeding of insects which require little space for their production, less food, do not generate greenhouse gases greenhouse, have a high nutritional value and are part of the dietary habits in many parts of the world. the world.
Large-scale farming requires huge amounts of land, feed and water. “Maintaining industries such as agriculture or livestock implies a high environmental impact that we can no longer assume», Explains the UNAM expert. Like the work recently published in Science, the carbon footprint of raising meat for human consumption is estimated at over 7.1 billion tonnes of CO2, which accounts for up to 14.5% of all anthropogenic greenhouse gases emitted . Similarly, FAO estimates predict a global population of 9.7 billion by 2050. To feed that many people, the world will need to shift to low-cost production and intensive sources of nutrients.
“Unlike meat, the production of insects requires little production space, a smaller amount of food, they do not generate greenhouse gases, they have a high nutritional value and are part of the dietary habits in many many parts of the world.Pine points out. The effective feed conversion rate of insects, which can be eaten whole, is much cheaper than traditional livestock, being a renewable natural resource.
Eating insects can complement a balanced diet
As the entomologist explains, if they cannot replace vegetables in a balanced human diet, they can be used as a supplement. They are high in protein, fat, vitamins, minerals and calories. “One hundred grams of insects contain 67% protein, while one hundred grams of meat contains 33. All insects exceed the intake of corn, wheat and chicken.“, emphasizes the expert, who has spent years analyzing the proximal chemical composition of this group of animals, comparing their nutritional value and that of conventional foods.
“During their daily manipulation in the laboratory, we realized that not only did they provide a lot of protein, but that the insects also provided considerable amounts of fat. We have discovered, for example, that maguey worms and slime worms contain fatty acids such as oleic, which are so beneficial to our health.warns Pin.
Some insects are also rich in vitamins of group B, absent from tropical plants, in vitamin C and A. And, others, in certain minerals, such as flies, which provide calcium, or termites, which provide phosphorus. House crickets, for example, have a high iron and zinc content. Also grasshoppers, small Mexican grasshoppers, one of the most consumed insects. The southern, central and southeastern states of the country are its main producers. “Like Oaxaca, where the collection and sale of these animals is done throughout the year”, explains the biologist.
This state, known for having one of the best gastronomy nationally, is one of the states with the greatest diversity of insects in the diet of rural communities, which consume bees and wasps, make sauces with grasshoppers, with red maguey worms and with chicatana ants, also salts to which we add chilli and with which we taste the mezcal. In this region they also eat the ahuatle, the egg of the water bug, known as the axayácatl.
The consequences of an emerging industry
Although the FAO shows strong support for the consumption of insects, it is very cautious about the importance of hygienic conditions for their breeding. These animals can also be contaminated or have allergens that trigger serious reactions. “For efficient production, marketing and export in food supply chains, specific legislation, with labeling rules and regulations, is always necessary.warns Pin.
“Insects are sold for human consumption without knowing their composition, where they are extracted and stored. A lack of control over the safety of the products manufactured throughout the processing chain can lead to a major health problem.“, continue.
For example, for the breeding of grasshoppers, these insects feed on corn and alfalfa. If there are insecticides in these crops, the grasshoppers may have harmful compounds that make people sick.
Pino, underlines another of the risks of this emerging industry, whose international market is estimated to grow at an annual rate of 20% to 30%. “ANDWe don’t know what happens when it’s produced on a large scale. This is why we need great control over the extraction that is carried out from nature. If you start extracting insects without criteria or inspections, we can kill them, drive them to extinction“, he warns.
“Gourmetization” of the consumption of insects
On the other hand, according to the biologist, its increasing “gourmetization”, like the one that has been happening for years in the San Juan capital market, can make the product more expensive, harming crops that already consume insects. as part of their plan. “It is important not only to respect the eating habits of cultural groups, but also the way they prepare their dishes, as they have done for centuries.“, he concludes.
According to Florentine Codex, written by Fray Bernardino de Sahagún between the years 1540 and 1585, more than 96 described insects then made up the gastronomy of the pre-Hispanic peoples of Mexico. A century-old crop that is appearing in the world today and promises to be the food of the future.