Like many people in his town in the southern Mexico highlands, Gerardo Carrillo looks forward to harvest time in August. That's when he can...
MEXICO CITY — Like many people in his town in the southern Mexico highlands, Gerardo Carrillo looks forward to harvest time in August. That’s when he can pick greenish caterpillars off the trees and boil them with a little lime.
“They’re good,” the 53-year-old gardener said. “They taste a little like grasshoppers.”
As Mexico’s centuries-old tradition of eating bugs becomes more lucrative — maguey worms and ant eggs are showing up as exotic fare at expensive restaurants — researchers are trying to persuade poor villages to cash in on these pests to earn money.
With a protein content up to twice that of beef, bugs could also become a welcome diet supplement among the estimated 20 million extremely poor Mexicans who live on incomes of $1 a day or less.
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In many towns, especially in southern Mexico, bugs are part of the diet. In Carrillo’s home village of Zapotitlán de Salinas, 130 miles southeast of Mexico City, residents fry the green caterpillars called cuchama. They sell some, though they’re available only a couple of months a year and don’t provide much income.
While the spicy, leggy bodies of locusts; the crusty, French-fried caterpillars; or bursting, buttery ant eggs may be an acquired taste, insect cuisine is winning converts in a variety of ways.
Consider locusts, covered in chocolate or sweet sauce, and worms, in Jell-O or clear, hard candy. Invented by biologist Juan García Oviedo, they have been a big hit in test groups in the past 10 years.
“The kids love them,” García Oviedo said of the clear candy with the bug inside. “They tend to eat the candy to get at the bug to see if it’s real. Once they find out it’s real, they keep on eating anyway.”
Bugs have long been a food source in Oaxaca, and the bug movement is spreading. Farmers near Mexico City were spending large amounts of money on pesticides to kill grasshoppers, García Oviedo said, until they found they could get more money for the edible bugs than for their crops.
“Now, these farmers are planting a cheap kind of corn, just to serve as a trap to catch grasshoppers,” he noted.
While the ideas have made it to market studies and consumer testing, they still require seed money. García Oviedo said he has interest from foreign investors but has been hamstrung by Mexican food-safety standards that treat insect content as contamination rather than a potential main ingredient.
Officials at Mexico’s Agriculture Department said insect consumption falls outside regulations because it’s a traditional, noncommercial food.
Farmers in Tlaxcala state, just east of Mexico City, have been recruited to raise popular maguey worms year-round. This wrinkly, red-and-white worm — really a caterpillar — is the kind sometimes found in a bottle of the liquor mescal. Increased availability would improve the market for the sought-after worms; fried with butter and garlic, they sell for up to $40 a dozen at some upscale Mexican restaurants, about 15 times the price paid to those who gather them.
García Oviedo hopes to produce more modern, “mixed-bug” products, such as grinding up grasshoppers into hot dogs or enriching tortillas with high-protein bug-larvae powder.
“It’s just like eating a regular hot dog, but with five or six times the nutritional value,” he said.