Considered by some as a delicacy, more than 2,000 insect species could end up on our menus. Although many people in Germany are more likely to find these crawling critters disgusting rather than delicious, researchers believe they have great potential: “Given our global challenges, such as climate change and intensive animal farming, we must change our diet”, says Daniel Anthes, economic geographer and business economist at Zukunftsinstitut, a think tank in Frankfurt, Germany (Hombach, Spectrum 2020).
The new super food
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), more than two billion people are already using this alternative source of food. In Latin America, parts of Asia and Africa, insects are often considered basic foods, while in other countries they are touted as exotic delicacies.
There are many good reasons to embrace insects as a food source. They are rich in protein and contain healthy unsaturated fatty acids, vitamins and minerals. Their ecological footprint is also favourable. For example, pigs produce ten to 100 times more greenhouse gases per kilogram of body mass than the same amount of mealworms (FAO, 2019).
Verbraucherzentrale Hamburg, a consumer organisation, is calling for standards, since there are currently no guidelines in Germany on how edible insects should be kept, fed or processed (vhzh, 2019).
European standard in progress
The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) updated its novel foods regulation in 2015 (Regulation [EU] 2015/2283). Evidence must now be provided that edible insects are not harmful to health. After a transitional period, the established standards became mandatory as of 1 January 2020.
“The new authorisation procedure protects consumers by evaluating the safety evaluation of insect foods”, says Andreas Daxenberger of TUV SÜD (Krömer, 2019).
EFSA has already received a number of inspection requests for insects such as the house cricket (Acheta domestica), the migratory locust (Locusta migroria) and the mealworm (Tenebrio molitor). The first edible insects with EU approval could be launched on the market by mid-year.
Most products will probably carry warnings for people with allergies.
Proteins with allergenic potential
“Insects that are newly approved as food contain proteins similar to those found in molluscs or crustaceans. This is why allergic reactions can also occur when they are consumed”, explains Sereina de Zardo of aha! Swiss Allergy Centre in Bern (Kündig, 2017).
The proteins in mealworms appear to have a structure similar to those in crabs, shrimps or prawns (Broekman, 2016). “People with a shrimp allergy need to be informed about this potential danger”, says Henrike Broekman of Utrecht University in the Netherlands.
The prevalence of allergic reactions to insects is not yet known. A recent study from Thailand estimates that, when eaten, insects trigger allergic reactions in nearly 13 out of 100 people. The consumption of edible insects may lead to allergic reactions particularly in people with asthma, hay fever or allergic skin rashes (urticaria) (Chomchai, 2020). However, these results are not representative, as only 140 people participated in the online survey conducted by Mahidol University in Bangkok. This is why Summon Chomchai and his team recommend that studies with more participants be carried out so that suspected allergies can be confirmed through tests.
Until now, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations has estimated that the risk of allergy when eating insects is “rather low.”
Kündig C. Mehlwürmer und Co. – Allergie-Experten warnen vor Krabbelfood (Mealworms, etc. – allergy experts warn against insect foods). Watson, Swiss online news site, article dated 24 June 2017. (In German)