A start-up entrepreneur from South Africa wants to change the way edible caterpillars, popularly known as “mopane worms”, are viewed and eaten.
For many people, especially those from Western Europe, the idea of eating insects is still associated with fear and inhibitions.
But they can be a valuable food source and growing them is not harmful to the environment.
South African chemical engineer Wendy Vesela has found ways to turn the spiky green and black caterpillars – which are packed with protein and iron – into a flour that can be used in savory cookies, sweet chocolate protein bars, muesli or smoothies.
Steamed and sliced, mopane pieces can also be used as a pizza topping.
Vesela says she has found national and international customers for her organic products.
Edible insects and worms are actually becoming increasingly popular in western cultures.
But nutritional anthropologist Anna Trapido insists the trend shouldn’t be viewed as just another diet fad, a “kind of adventure tourism where you get a badge” for eating them.
“Mopane have to be treated with respect because they’re part of people’s emotional, spiritual and culinary genres,” she said.
In Vesela’s home province of Limpopo, where she grew up in a town not far from the world-famous Kruger National Park, mopane is a staple, cooked in an onion and tomato sauce.
– ‘More protein than steak’-
The caterpillars are “a healthier source of protein,” she said. And it’s “not a worm. So people just have to get over that fear.”
Vesela tried to woo reluctant customers with biscuits and protein bars at a recent food fair in Johannesburg’s upscale Sandton district.
“I will not eat a worm. I’m sorry, it’s disgusting. But if you give it to me in the form of a chocolate … it’s really delicious,” said Gail Odendaal, 38, walking away with a bag of protein bars.
Mopanes are also environmentally friendly and do not require any additional water or land as they breed and feed on mopane trees that grow in hot and arid regions of southern Africa.
They’re a better source of protein than many other foods on the market, said nutritionist Mpho Tshukudu.
“It’s rich in protein, essential fats and minerals, especially iron. It has more iron than the most expensive cut of steak,” she said.
With demand increasing since starting her business seven months ago, Vesela plans to expand the business and harvest multiple crops per year.
She now hires country women to collect mopanes when they are in season in December and April. Mopanes are gutted, boiled and dried to be used whole or ground.
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