Insect consumption: The diet of the future?

In the San Juan market, one of the best known in Mexico City, tourists and locals alike fix their curious eyes on the varied food offer that is displayed on the counters of some stalls: aphids, beetles, maguey worms, small spiders which are served fried or scorpions covered in chocolate. A diverse gastronomic menu made from insects and other arthropods endemic to the country, but also from exotic species, such as the Madagascar cockroach. It is a sign that the insect consumption It may be the diet of the future.

if in the world there are approximately 1,681 species of these invertebrates suitable for food, Mexico has almost a third of them. “In our catalog we have reported 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 researching it for more than 40 years.

This country is one of the richest regions in edible insects in the world. For years, the The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) recommends the consumption of these animals as a way to combat hunger and other conflicts of a social economic nature.

The climate crisis is impacting food security in many parts of the planet, with increasingly frequent and intense droughts and floods causing ongoing problems in the global supply chain, especially in low-income countries.

According to an investigation, published in the magazine Science last January, Insect 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 novel food under regulation and, recently, gave the green light to the commercialization of the insect. Acheta domesticushe house cricket.

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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 entomophagy tradition is deeply rooted, offering dishes based on bed bugs, moths, ants, wasps and termites, among many others. “And also the products made with them, such as sauces, salts, dressings or ice cream,” Pino points out.

“In the world there are approximately 1,681 species of these invertebrates suitable for food”

The advantages that these animals bring, the most dominant group on Earth and the conquerors of practically any of the existing habitats—from oil puddles to remote salt mines—are many. According to its consumers, insects are clean, tasty, safe and nutritious: excellent candidates to supplement other diets. Their upbringing does not require many resources, especially when compared to meat production.

An alternative with environmental and health benefits

Maintaining intensive industries such as agriculture or livestock implies a deterioration of the ecosystems, unlike the breeding of insects that require little space for their production, less amount of food, do not generate greenhouse gases, have high nutritional value and are part of eating patterns in many parts of the world.

Large-scale animal farming requires enormous amounts of acreage, 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 to exceed 7,100 million tons of CO2representing up to 14.5 % of all anthropogenic greenhouse gases that are issued. Likewise, FAO estimates announce a world population of 9.7 billion by 2050. To feed so many people, the world will need to shift towards low-cost production and intensive sources of nutrients.

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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 protein, while one hundred grams of meat have 33. All insects exceed the contribution of corn, wheat and chicken”, points out the expert, who has spent years analyzing the proximal chemical composition of this group of animals, making comparisons of their nutritional value and that of conventional foods.

“Unlike conventional livestock farming, insect farming does not emit greenhouse gases, requires little space and a smaller amount of feed”

“Throughout their daily handling in the laboratory, we realized that not only do they provide a lot of protein, but the insects provide considerable amounts of fat. We discovered, for example, that maguey worms and stick worms contain fatty acids such as oleic acid, which is so beneficial for our health”, warns Pino.

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 provide calcium, or termites, which provide phosphorus. Domestic crickets, for example, have a high iron and zinc content. Also the 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 throughout the year,” says the biologist.

This state, known for having one of the best cuisines nationwide, 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 chili is added and with which mezcal is tasted. In this region they also eat the ahuatle, the egg of the water bug, known as axayácatl.

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The consequences of an emerging industry

Although the FAO shows strong support for the consumption of insects, it is very cautious with the importance of hygienic conditions for their rearing. These animals can also become contaminated or present allergens that trigger serious reactions. “For efficient production, marketing and export in food supply chains, specific legislation, with labeling standards and regulations, is still necessary,” warns Pino.

“Insects are being sold for human consumption without knowing their composition, where they are being extracted and stored. A lack of control of the safety of the products produced throughout the entire transformation chain can lead to a major health problem”, he continues.

For example, for the breeding of grasshoppers, these insects feed on corn and alfalfa. If there are insecticides in these crops, grasshoppers may have harmful compounds that make people sick.

Pino, points out another of the risks of this emerging industry, whose It is estimated that the international market will grow at an annual rate of 20% to 30%. “We already know what happens when it is produced on a large scale. That’s why we need a great control over extraction that takes place from nature. If you start to extract insects without criteria or inspections, we can kill them, drive them to extinction, ”he warns.

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