Insect consumption is an alternative to combat food insecurity and reduce the environmental impact of livestock. Numerous studies point to the benefits of this diet, part of the culture of some regions of the world. In Mexico, they are a fundamental part of its centuries-old gastronomy.
At the San Juan market, one of the best known in Mexico City, tourists and locals alike fix their curious eyes on the varied gastronomic offer that is displayed on the counters of some stalls: aphids, beetles, maguey worms, small spiders that are served fried or scorpions covered with chocolate. A diversified gastronomic menu made up of insects and other arthropods endemic to the country, but also exotic species, such as the Madagascar cockroach.
If there are approximately 1,681 species of these invertebrates suitable for eating in the world, Mexico has almost a third of them. “In our catalog we register up to 605 species”, says 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 over 40 years.
This country is one of the richest regions for 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 way to combat hunger and other conflicts of an economic and social nature.
Climate crisis and food security
The climate crisis is affecting food security in many parts of the planet, with droughts and floods becoming more frequent and intense, causing ongoing problems in the global supply chain, especially in low-income countries.
According to an investigation, published in the magazine ScienceInsect farming could not only help alleviate the above challenge, but also boost developing economies. In fact, 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. Acheta domesticushouse cricket.
While most western countries show some 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, offering dishes based on bedbugs, moths, ants, wasps and termites, among many others. “And also the products made with them, such as sauces, salts, seasonings or ice cream”, highlights Pino.
The most dominant group on Earth and the conquerors of virtually every habitat in existence – from oil pools to remote salt mines – the advantages brought by these animals are many. According to their consumers, insects are clean, tasty, safe and nutritious: excellent candidates to complement other diets. Its creation does not require many 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 livestock, implies the deterioration of ecosystems, unlike the creation of insects that require little space for their production, less food, do not generate greenhouse gases, have high nutritional value and are part of dietary patterns in many parts of the world. the world.
Large-scale livestock farming requires enormous amounts of cropland, feed and water. “Maintaining industries such as agriculture or livestock implies a high environmental impact that we can no longer assume”, says the UNAM expert. As the work recently published in Sciencethe carbon footprint of raising meat for human consumption is estimated at over 7,100 million tons of COtwo, representing up to 14.5% of all anthropogenic greenhouse gases emitted. Likewise, FAO estimates announce a world 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 space for production, less food, does not generate greenhouse gases, has a high nutritional value and is part of the dietary patterns in various parts of the world.”, points out Pinheiro. The efficient feed conversion rate of insects, which can be consumed whole, is much cheaper than traditional livestock, constituting a renewable natural resource.
Insect consumption can complement a balanced diet
As the entomologist explains, although they cannot replace vegetables in a balanced human diet, they can be used to complement it. They are rich in protein, fat, vitamins, minerals and calories. “One hundred grams of insects contains 67 of protein, while one hundred grams of meat has 33. All insects outweigh the contribution of corn, wheat and chicken”, points out the specialist, who has been analyzing the proximal chemical composition of this group of animals for years, comparing their nutritional value with that of conventional foods.
“Throughout their daily handling in the laboratory, we realized that in addition to providing a lot of protein, insects also provide considerable amounts of fat. We discovered, for example, that earthworms and earthworms contain fatty acids such as oleic, which are so beneficial for our health.”, warns Pinheiro.
Some insects are also rich in group B vitamins, absent in tropical vegetables, in vitamin C and A. And others, in some mineral, such as flies, which supply calcium, or termites, which supply phosphorus. House crickets, for example, are high in iron and zinc. Also the locusts, 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 these animals are collected and sold year-round,” says the biologist.
This state, known for having one of the best cuisines in the country, 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, red worms and Chicatana ants, which the chilli is added and with which the mezcal is tasted. In this region they also eat the ahuatle, the egg of the water bug, known as axayácatl.
The consequences of an emerging industry
Although the FAO strongly supports the consumption of insects, it is very cautious about the importance of hygienic conditions for their rearing. These animals can also become contaminated or present allergens that trigger severe reactions. “For efficient production, marketing and export in food supply chains, specific legislation is still needed, with labeling rules and regulations”, warns Pinheiro.
“Insects are being sold for human consumption without knowing their composition, where they are being extracted and stored. The lack of control over the safety of products produced throughout the entire transformation chain can lead to a major health problem“, continues.
For example, for breeding grasshoppers, these insects feed on corn and alfalfa. If there are insecticides on those crops, the locusts could have harmful compounds that make people sick.
Pino, points out another of the risks of this emerging industry, whose international market should grow at an annual rate of 20% to 30%. “ANDWe don’t know what happens when it’s produced on a large scale. That’s why we need a lot of control over the extraction that is done from nature. If you start extracting insects without criteria or inspections, we can kill them, drive them to extinction.”, warns.
“Gourmetization” of insect consumption
On the other hand, according to the biologist, its increasingly ‘gourmetization’, as has been happening for years in the San Juan capital market, could make the product more expensive, harming those cultures that already consume insects as part of their diet. “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 insects described then made up the gastronomy of the pre-Hispanic peoples of Mexico. A century-old culture that today presents itself to the world and announces itself as the food of the future.