Anyone who has traveled will tell you that travel broadens the mind AND expands one’s palette. Traveling abroad just about anywhere will ensure that you are exposed to new foods, some of which you’ve likely never heard of before. Usually this is a wonderfully enriching experience, although sometimes it’s an experience that you don’t need to repeat!
When traveling in Europe, pulpo a la gallega (octopus tentacles) from Spain, escargots (snails) from France, caviar from Russia, and reindeer meat from Finland are just some of the beloved local dishes you’ll be able to sample. While they may not be your first choice for dinner, chances are, if you ordered these in a restaurant you’d be considered worldly and sophisticated.
Yet, there is a whole category of food, eaten by two million people around the world, that most Europeans and North Americans would NEVER consider eating: Insects.
But maybe we should…
Eating insects is nothing new. In fact, humans have been doing so for hundreds of thousands of years. Recently, however, people across the globe are re-evaluating why insects are eaten and considering eating more of them. An eye-opening headline appeared back in 2013 when the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations released a major report detailing insect consumption around the world and suggesting that insects are a cheap source of protein, vitamins, and minerals that could improve the diet of people who don’t have access to a well-balanced diet. Collecting and selling insects can provide an important source of additional income, especially for women. Just as importantly, entomophagy, or the practice of eating insects, could provide a solid meat alternative that would do less harm to the planet than raising animals. Read all 200 pages of the report here .
Insects are currently eaten in dozens of countries, so not surprisingly I’ve encountered insects for sale on a number of trips. Scorpions on a stick in China, platters of spiders and cockroaches on the streets in Cambodia, and most recently, grasshoppers in markets in Mexico. The chapulines from Oaxaca tasted pretty good; light and a bit greasy with a mild flavor. Some people compare them to popcorn. My only complaint was that the legs got stuck in my teeth! Knowing that there were insect legs in my mouth was hard to swallow. Literally.
Most of our aversion to eating insects is mental. It’s hard to get over the fact that it’s a bug that we are eating, a nuisance of a creature that we try to kill when it invades our home or ruins our camping trip. Yet, we consider things like lobsters and caviar delicacies that we’d pay top dollar for. If you really think about it, aren’t lobsters and caviar more gross than bugs?
Eating insects was very common for the Aztecs in central Mexico, but after the Spanish colonization this practice became less popular because it was seen as uncivilized by the Spaniards. Class issues were certainly at play. The wealthier you were, the more meat you ate, while your poorer neighbors were left to forage for insects. Historical and cultural taboos have a large influence on our eating practices and, even today, they can be hard to shake off.
Is it safe to eat insects?
Another deterrent is doubts about hygiene and safety. Where are the insects coming from? Will I get sick if I eat them? These are valid concerns, and if you are going to eat insects on your next trip, here are some general guidelines:
- Just like meat, insects can contain bacteria that could lead to illness. Eating cooked insects is safer than eating raw ones.
- As with any street food, try to chose to buy from places that are frequented by many people so food is being cooked quickly and the insects are not sitting out in the hot sun for a long time.
- Insects gathered from local fields (the majority of those that you’ll find abroad) have been known to contain the pesticides or fertilizers that are used on crops. Insects collected from forests are generally safer.
- Some insects are considered toxic if they do not have certain parts removed. For example, the stinger and the venom glands have to be removed to eat a scorpion raw. If it is cooked then these can be left on.
- While rare, it is possible to have an allergic reaction to insects. If a person is allergic to bees or crustaceans like shrimp or lobster they should avoid insects in the same family.
Making insects more edible
Culturally, eating insects can be a very unique experience. The “fear factor” makes it exciting and memorable and it is a clear example of a stark cultural difference. It is important to remember that just because insects are sold in one place does not mean that everyone in that culture has a habit of eating them. In Mexico, for example, it is traditional in Oaxaca and other parts of Mexico, but not common in Mexico City. That being said, some restaurants are reviving the tradition and it may become more popular in the future.
Additionally, while eating an insect on a stick makes it impossible to forget what you are eating, companies are creating new ways of eating insects that might be easier to stomach. I’ll be honest, when my cooking instructor at a class in Oaxaca brought out frozen bees for our recipe, I was hesitant. But once they were ground up and no longer resembled bees, it made it much easier to enjoy my meal. Companies know that getting consumers over the “ick factor” is the hardest part, so they are creating products like flour and chips that contain insects (see affiliate link below), giving the benefit of the nutrients without reminding you that you are eating bugs.
It remains to be seen if this insect-eating trend will increase world wide, but we do know that the demand for meat is steadily increasing as the world’s population expands. Eating more meat will take a larger and larger toll on our environment. Incorporating some of that adventurous travel spirit into your daily diet by eating insects can only be a good thing for the future!
Interested in learning more about eating insects? Find some educational videos and resources for teaching about eating insects here.