I took an eye-opening trip to Mexico City recently and, to my great surprise, found myself eating ant larvae and pupae for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Escamoles is the proper name for these delicacies, which are about the size of seed pearls, look like plump and semitranslucent tapioca balls, and taste like buttery blanched almonds. I sampled them in tacos and stews, and in elite concoctions with avocado and ash.
After consuming many ant-laden foods, I concluded they were mild and pleasant, but not particularly delicious. Still, I left grateful for the opportunity to explore this tradition, which has been a culinary staple since the time of the Aztecs.
This happy bug-eating experience might make you think I’m now the perfect audience for the press releases that clog my inbox announcing cricket-flour chocolate-chip cookies, peanut-butter-and-chocolate cricket-protein bars, and even a cheese-powder-coated, cricket-based version of Doritos.
You would be wrong. I think these products are ridiculous, and I predict they will fail. I think the argument these PR folks make — that people from other cultures eat bugs and this is the way forward if we want to save lives and the planet — is a crock.
Highly processed food is not good for you, whether it’s finely milled corn inside a protein bar or finely milled cricket flour inside a tortilla chip. We now have reams of data showing a correlation between these processed foods and chronic diseases — espe-cially obesity, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular conditions. Humans are simply meant to eat whole foods: bunches of Swiss chard, eggs with the yellow and white parts together, intact kidney beans.
We’re not just feeding ourselves, after all. What we eat affects our microbiome, the several trillion bacteria that help us get the most out of our meals. When scientists look at the microbiomes of people who eat highly processed foods, they find a completely different bacterial ecosystem than they find in people who eat primarily whole foods.
That makes me think there are microbiome critters that thrive on microscopically milled flours and easily available sugars — the ones associated with chronic health conditions — and they drive out the healthy-microbiome guys.
Or it might have to do with the fact that the good guys need the indigestible (to humans) parts of whole foods to thrive. Removing the oat’s bran, the apple’s peel, the pea’s skin, and maybe even the cricket’s head may mean nothing to you, but it may be essential to the little helpers in your digestive tract.
If the microbiome isn’t damaged as a result of the good things being removed from food in processing, it could be compromised by the pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, and other poisons used to grow and process food. According to the Environmental Working Group, the people who put out the Dirty Dozen list every year, farmers apply some 300 pounds of pesticides to every acre of conventionally grown strawberries, leaving plenty of post-harvest residues.
We’ve all heard about the chemicals pumped into factory-farmed chickens to ward off diseases; this makes me wonder whether factory-farmed crickets get the same kind of treatment. I have read that the crickets you can buy now in stores are raised on artificial feed, which isn’t designed with the human digestive system in mind.
Then there’s the matter of turning these bugs into edible products. Manufacturers tend to introduce novel chemicals into highly processed food at every stage of production: They make the various flours and oils shelf-stable as an ingredient, make them extrudable, make them perpetually emulsified, and make them shelf-stable as a product.
All of this is as pertinent to wheat flour as it is to cricket flour, which is to say processed foods are processed foods — no matter their origin. We evolved as animals over hundreds of thousands of years in a world of whole foods, and in that time we co-evolved with microbiome critters that used the same wholesome fare.
So, to those who tout bug food as a sustainable source of protein and, hence, a long-term solution to global hunger, I say this: The problem facing famine-struck people in distant lands is typically war, not a lack of food.
Armed conflict, corrupt dictators, and weakened governments all contribute to inadequate food-distribution networks. The World Bank has said African nations could feed their people — while reducing poverty and generating growth — if they could operate under peaceful conditions. Cricket flour, unfortunately, will do little to help them get there.
But you know who does benefit from the spread of cricket-protein bars? The people sending the press releases and the venture capitalists funding this food trend. We already tried feeding the world by boosting U.S. corn production, and all we got was a dead zone the size of Connecticut in the Gulf of Mexico from all the fertilizers, pesticides, and other agricultural chemicals draining into the Mississippi River. Meanwhile, African warlords plundered the corn and used it as a bargaining chip to damage the most vulnerable.
The way to solve health problems and famine in the developing world has little to do with eating insects. All of us need to eat whole foods, in peace. This is not easy; it’s slow and steady work.
Am I the biggest bummer in the world? Maybe.
I do, however, recommend trying the escamoles if you’re ever in Mexico City. Go to one of the markets and see them in their raw glory — pale as ivory and expensive as caviar. Aztec culture is beautiful and deserves to be revered and celebrated.
Also, if you’re going to Sweden, try the herring and rutabaga. Just don’t try to tell me that turning herring into Doritos will solve global hunger, because I’m not buying it.
This originally appeared as “Bugged!” in the October 2017 print issue of Experience Life.