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Bug Bites

Think twice before shooing away that creepy crawler ... it could be your next meal. By Jon Lucksinger

In the Western world, eating insects is generally disdained. However, in many countries they are a staple food source. The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that insect-eating populations around the globe regularly consume more than 1,400 different species of insects. Many of these cultures can be found in Central and South America, and canny travelers can taste their entomological fare—if they know where to look.

From central Mexico to the Peruvian Andes, entomophagy (the eating of insects) is a common practice. Most indigenous American cultures have some documented entomophagy, and the native populations of Latin America regularly forage for edible insects. Consumption of insects is not just a survival technique, nor is it a supplement or replacement for “normal” foods in their diets.

“Insects are not just eaten by poor or undeveloped peoples,” says John Abbott, the curator of entomology at The Texas Natural Science Center. “Most cultures outside of the U.S. and Western Europe have entomophagy. They are a logical, efficient and abundant food source.”

Insects have similar levels of protein and often more vitamins per weight than other meats. Farming them is more sustainable than birds or large mammals. They reproduce more quickly, require less land, and as exothermic organisms, they require less energy and thus less food. For comparison, 100g of giant water bugs contain 20g of protein, 16mg of iron and 8.3g of fat (unsaturated); 100g of lean beef contain 25g of protein, 2.3mg of iron and 18g of fat (7g of saturated fat).

To experience entomophagy in Latin America, you can attend a festival like the one held annually in Taxco, Mexico, celebrating jumiles (stink bugs), or pick up a box of fried hormigas culonas (roughly translated as big-ass ants) in eastern Colombia. But the best way to find a quality meal of insects is to ask a local.

In cities such as Oaxaca in southern Mexico, insects prepared for consumption can be found at various local food markets. Asking any person at a hostel or in the city where you can find fried chapulines (grasshoppers) will get you directions to one of the tastier insect treats in Latin America. In the Andes, people consume a variety of insect larvae, and the most popular fare can often be found at markets or by asking your guide if you’re on a trek. And any time you travel to more remote areas, such as the Amazon or eastern Nicaragua, inquire about local dishes. Even if they aren’t insect-based, you might find that roasted monkey is your kind of treat.

But don’t just eat anything in an attempt to broaden your culinary horizons. Remember to take precautions when eating insects, just as with any other food. Though they may be healthy snacks, Abbott points out that any bugs you find in urban areas or near farmland may contain pesticides or other contaminants. And it is advisable not to eat anything that locals don’t already eat; there is often a good reason they’re not consumed.

That being said, entomophagy is a rewarding experience that you can carry back home. In the United States and Western Europe, festivals and publications supporting insects as food have become more common and more popular in the last decade. If you develop a taste for bugs abroad, you can share your culinary preference with friends and family with roasted chile-lime grasshoppers or mealworm banana bread. And the next time you’re in Peru, skip the cuy (guinea pig), and ask for the chiro worms (longhorn beetle larvae). They’re better tasting and better for you.

Photo by Sids1 @ Flickr