Butterflies in the Stomach
By Gabriel Gasque
With the first bite, the crisp pungency of chopped raw onion and the refreshing and aromatic flavor of cilantro were liberated in my mouth. You can take for granted those flavors in any street taco in Mexico City. Yet, here I was, some 2,000 miles north of the Mexican border, sitting in a restaurant on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. I had to bite into my taco a couple of times before the crunchy, roasted flavor of grasshoppers filled my mouth. Garlicky, limy, intense. Without fear of exaggerating, those grasshopper tacos were as good as any you can get in Mexico, if you dare to try them.
While westerners mostly consider eating insects as repulsive or, if adventurous, maybe a novelty, we do still regularly consume insect products — though much of the “insect-eating” stigmas are significantly reduced, if not altogether absent, with these products. For instance, we readily eat honey, pollen, royal jelly, propolis – all obtained from honey bees (Apis melifera). We also extract the natural food color, carmine (E120), from cochineal (Dactylopius coccus), which is used as a dye for meat, sausages, poultry, surimi, cookies, icings, pie fillings, jams, preserves, gelatins, juices, and cheddar cheese, among others.
Despite the rare appearances of insects on the dinner plates in the west, insects are a staple in many regions of the world, scattered across Africa, Asia, Oceania, and Latin America — because they are an excellent food source. An extreme example of this is the Democratic Republic of Congo, where insects can constitute up to 60% of ingested animal protein.
I will try to make the point that we, in the west, should eat more bugs.
Insects have been part of the human diets for a very long time. Two-million year old fossils of human ancestors in South Africa revealed the use of modified bones as tools to dig into termite mounds. In the Americas, archaeological evidence (fossilized human feces) dating back approximately 9,500 years ago has provided direct indication that Native Americans consumed termites and beetles.
Among the historical factors that drove insects out of the human diet was the adoption of agriculture, some 12,000 years ago. The eventual geographical stability that brought major agricultural development led to a decrease in wild harvesting, and insects became agricultural pests rather than food. It terms of productivity and sustainability, this is, however, an irony. In the U.S.A. alone, 2-3 million dollars are spent each year to save crops from insects, essentially killing a food source (insects) that may contain up to 94% high-quality animal protein in order to save a food source that contains no more than 14% of plant protein.
Given that the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that 10-35% of our caloric intake should come from protein, about 50g of protein per day for adults, there is no reason why insects should not be a source of this protein. (Just to provide some perspective, a 3oz. serving of meat provides about 21g of protein.)
Insects are highly nutritious. A serving of grasshoppers (100g) contains 14-20g of protein, equivalent to 2-3 eggs or 2-3 cups of milk. In addition, insects provide essential minerals, vitamins, and fat. A significant advantage of insect-derived protein over larger animal-derived protein is that insects can also be a good source of fiber due to their crunchy exoskeletons, which are made up of a fibrous material called chitin .
Good nutrition isn’t the only benefit of eating insects – they are also sustainable, and energetically inexpensive (for instance, cows need 3x more protein as compared to grasshoppers to gain 1g in weight). By 2050, we expect that there will be approximately 9 billion mouths to feed on planet earth. Considering those numbers, we cannot ignore the ecological benefits of including insects as a food source.
A more extensive use of insects as food source might alleviate some of the world’s economic problems as well. For farmers in the developing world, insects come at basically no cost, and commercialization of insects as a food source can provide profitable returns. A small-scale farmer could potentially double their income by simply selling grasshoppers to local restaurants. Grasshopper plagues in Mexico and Thailand are regularly harvested for human consumption, and some of those can even be bought as yummy tacos in Manhattan. As our planet becomes more crowded, measures that preserve biodiversity and contribute to all aspects of sustainability will clearly be favored. Harvesting insects for food will benefit rural families, while decreasing pressure for land-clearing, pesticides, and intensive agricultural practices.
I believe insects offer an alternative for sustainable animal-derived protein. Grasshoppers could be the next beefsteak. Reversing centuries-old cultural taboos is a slow process, but there are indications this adverse attitude is beginning to undergo some change and improvement, one grasshopper taco at a time.If you live in New York City, you can try grasshopper tacos here.
Grasshopper Taco, La Oaxaquena
Cochineal, Wikimedia Commons