The Danger That We Like Worms Blueprint growing acceptance of insects in places like Europe may be an opportunity for developing countries that traditionally consume them, but it also presents risks
Could anyone imagine larvae burgers, onion crickets, or chocolate scorpions on European tables? “When I started talking about eating insects in the Netherlands in 1996, you were asking in a talk if anyone had tried them, and the silence was absolute,” recalls Arnold van Huis, professor of entomology at Wageningen University (Netherlands). “If I repeat the question today at a conference, at least half raise their hands. That shows how things have changed.”
However, cooking and eating bugs is a concept that still generates a stir in most countries in Europe. Such as the one raised as a result of the Carrefour supermarket chain presenting a range of insect-based products in Spain last week. “The fact that Europe is increasingly culturally diverse helps people to have a broader view and agree to try exotic or non-traditional foods,” says Patrick Durst, who worked for many years for the FAO (UN agency for the food and agriculture). “But insects are still a more complicated subject, due to the disgust they generate in many Europeans, who associate them with dirt and diseases,” he adds.
Something like this happens to the parents of Lucía Dueñas, Patricia Draghici, and Ander Méndez, three young university students from Bilbao who have launched to market chocolate-covered insects under the Khao Thai brand. “There are radical reactions: either wanting to try it at minute zero or not getting close.
My parents, for example, said to me: ‘But son, what are you doing?”, Says Méndez. But Van Huis, co-author of the reference book on edible insects, replies that they can be raised in perfectly hygienic environments and that, complying with European food safety regulations, they do not pose any health hazard. “In fact, and given that they are much farther biologically from humans than other farm animals, I would say that the risk of contagion or disease transmission is much lower,” he says.
From the young students of the University of the Basque Country, who import the finished product from Thailand, to the Germans of the Bug Foundation, who prepare burgers with larvae of the bed beetle (Alphitobitus diapering), the projects to exploit this food source They sprout across Europe as a locust plague, which is also eaten in many countries in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East.
“They are very crispy and tasty: very rich,” says Van Huis. The fact of seasoning them properly and presenting them in such a way that the bug is not identified (in flours, sauces, or soups, for example) helps to overcome the initial repulsion of many. “A steak is not a cow, and a strip of bacon is not a pig. You don’t have to see the insect when you eat it,” says Durst. And all these entomophagous initiatives strive, of course, to highlight the nutritional and environmental properties of their products.
“It is not easy to generalize, because almost 2,000 different species suitable for human consumption have been documented,” says the researcher. “And the nutritional value varies a lot from one species to another, or even depending on the time of the insect’s life when it is eaten, or how it is prepared. But we can safely say that, in general, they have a close protein level to that of beef or chicken or fish, and high content of vitamins, amino acids, and micronutrients. ”
The Dutch academic also praises the ease of production and breeding of most species, given their fecundity, and believes that there is no risk of altering European ecosystems if minimal precautions are taken at bug farms. But its spread by rich countries does pose a danger to communities in developing states that have been eating them for decades (or centuries).
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The problem does not fall on the specimens that can be raised, such as those brought by the Khao Thai university entrepreneurs, but on those species that have not yet been produced in captivity and that must be collected from the wild. Like bamboo worms, whose international demand has grown tremendously and, consequently, their price is skyrocketing in places like Thailand and moving away from the pockets of Thais.
It is an effect that products such as quinoa (a South American grain currently fashionable in the West) or Cordyceps mushrooms (for medicinal use) have already suffered: commercial success in the richest markets puts the use of a traditional resource or food out of reach of the premises. “If any insect becomes a gourmet product in the West, the effects on local collectors will be varied,” says Durst. “On the one hand, its value or price could exceed what they can pay for it. But, on the other, that high value may mean a new source of income for them.”