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What Are Chapulines and Should We All Be Eating Them?
What Are Chapulines – Introduction:
Maybe you’ve seen them sold in markets or by street vendors throughout Mexico. Perhaps you’ve been thoroughly disgusted by them, maybe you’ve been a little curious to try them, and you might love them as I do with a shot of mezcal. However, we must ask ourselves, should we all be eating chapulines?
The more science discovers the benefits of eating insects, the more we must all ask ourselves, What are chapulines, and should we all be eating them?
*The United Nations released a book called Edible Insects on why we should be eating insects for the sustainability of our planet. Click here to read the book for free.
What Are Chapulines?
Chapulines are a form of the Sphenarium genus of grasshopper. They are native to Mexico and some parts of the United States. The word comes from the Nauhatl word chapolin, which comes from a compound of the words “chapa” (meaning to bounce) and “olli” (meaning rubber). This name comes from the Aztecs belief that chapulines tended to bounce like rubber balls.
Traditionally, it’s between the month of May to early autumn when the grasshoppers hatched that they were harvested by the indigenous Aztecs. However, this family of grasshopper is now beginning to be specifically bred as food.
What Are Chapulines – How Are They Cooked?
If we had to pinpoint the hub or epicenter of chapulín culture, it would likely be in southern Mexico and Guatemala. States like Oaxaca, Chiapas, Puebla, Morelos, Mexico City, and Estado de Mexico are known for their love of this crunchy treat.
Originally, chapulines were toasted on a traditional flat griddle called a comal, though now there are some industrialized toasting methods used in larger manufacturing. Then the chapulines are commonly seasoned. Othertimes, chapulines are smoked to add a roasted flavor to the insects.
Sometimes, the chapulines are seasoned with dry spices like salt, garlic, or chili-lime. Also, you can commonly find chapulines that are fried in a flavored oil—with varying degrees of greasiness ranging from slightly coated to fully submerged (the latter of which is far too oily for my taste).
What Are Chapulines – How Are They Eaten?
Perhaps the most common way of eating chapulines is to just snack on them as if they were peanuts. They’re crunchy and salty. They go very well with a crisp Mexican lager, and they are commonly served with a shot of mezcal.
However, there are a hundred other ways that you could enjoy chapulines. One common way to enjoy chapulines is to eat them in tacos or tostadas with a spicy salsa and some guacamole. Some people enjoy them on huevos rancheros as well, perhaps with bits of chorizo.
You could pretty much put chapulines in any Mexican food if you wanted. You might be surprised to learn that another way to eat chapulines which is gaining in popularity is on pizza! That’s right, chapulines make a perfect pizza topping. So don’t think that chapulines are a one-trick pony. They are surprisingly versatile.
What Are Chapulines – Former Health Concerns:
Chapulines came into controversy over a decade ago when tests in California showed that Oaxacan chapulines were high in lead. They found that chapulines had 2,300 micrograms of lead in them per gram of chapulines (which is about 300x the recommended amounts for children under 6 and pregnant women).
After investigation, it was determined that when the chapulines were seasoned with chile and lime, they were doing it in lead bowls. This practice is said to have ceased, and chapulines are now safe to eat in this regard.
What Are Chapulines – Health Benefits of Chapulines:
Health benefits of chapulines have been known for decades. On average, pound-for-pound, they have more protein than beef. Also, they have almost no fat. They are roughly 5% fat—far less than most cuts of beef.
In fact, the biology department of the UNAM released a study highlighting their high protein content. Led by René Cerritos, an UNAM biologist, they found that on average chapulines are 62.93% protein (89.63% of which is digestible by the human body). This makes chapulines richer in protein than fish and milk!
Chapulines are not only easy to digest, the study suggests that they can actually improve digestion for those with previous underlying conditions. Chapulines are also rich in fiber which helps your digestive system.
They also have high levels of some micronutrients! Chapulines are high vitamin B, vitamin A, and vitamin C content. In addition, they also have calcium, zinc, and magnesium.
This study even found that chapulines can even help reduce the probability that you will contract a zoonotic disease—like H1N1, salmonella, E.coli, and perhaps even the new covid-19 coronavirus which is itself a zoonotic disease.
What Are Chapulines – Should We All Be Eating Them?
It’s no secret that eating meat is harmful to the environment—especially on the levels in which Westerners eat meat currently. If we take beef as an example, though the exact figures are in dispute, it is evident that it takes thousands of gallons of water per each pound of beef that we raise and consume.
Furthermore, only 40% of a cow’s body is edible, which means that we are watering cattle for an inefficient harvest. If possible, we should be harvesting animals that have 80% edible bodies.
Pigs, for example, have 80% edible bodies, though they too are problematic. For example, it requires 10 pounds of feed to harvest 2 pounds of meat. And feed itself also requires water for growth, therefore it’s not as efficient as other forms of meat like chicken or fish. Though, in the end, all forms of meat have their issues with sustainability.
Could chapulines alleviate some of our meat consumption globally while providing an invaluable source of protein? Possibly, but chapulines have their own issues as well.
– Critique of the Sustainability of Chapulines –
Unfortunately, chapulines themselves have their own issues. Many times, their harvesting is disorganized, difficult, and sometimes even illegal. It’s estimated that 350,000 tons of chapulines live on Mexican crops each year, however, only a few hundred tons are harvested each year from a handful of Mexican states.
This scarcity only increases demand, making chapulines actually quite expensive pound-for-pound considering—probably as expensive as some higher-end fish like salmon. Much of this price increase is due to middlemen shipping them around the country. Chapulines are rather inexpensive in the actual locations where they are harvested.
In addition, there is little regulation for chapulines. Many of them could come from fields that are heavily laden with pesticides. Some people believe that the solution is mass industrial farming. Once we have a regulated industry, then the price will be driven down, the grasshoppers will be dispatched humanely, and the quality of the chapulines will increase.
However, others believe this process will only decrease their sustainability. Using freezers to dispatch them humanely will only increase their carbon footprint. As Cerritos (the biologist from the UNAM who conducted the extensive research into their health benefits in the last section) points out, there are literally hundreds of thousands of tons of chapulines that are destroying crops.
These could be harvested naturally without manmade farming. Cerritos envisions small farming communities harvesting their own chapulines in order to supplement their income.
*Click here to read more for an in-depth look at this debate.
What Are Chapulines – Conclusion:
As a food, it seems clear that chapulines are a miracle. Low in fat, easy to digest, high in protein and micronutrients—chapulines in themselves are healthy. They use less water, take up less space, and create less waste than the majority of the food that we are producing now.
However, there are problems with looking to chapulines as a viable food source for the planet in the future as the global population approaches 9 billion. Either technology needs to develop to harvest chapulines better than by hand without damaging the crops on which they live, or we need to develop a sustainable method for farming these delicious critters.
In the meantime, we can continue to enjoy a delicious chapulín from time to time while the market surrounding this food develops.
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