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Edible Insects: Are There Food Safety Concerns to Consider?

Updated: Feb 2


food safety edible insects

While containing allergens and certain antinutrients, edible insects which were farmed in controlled environments are generally safe for human consumption. On the other hand, edible insects which were harvested from the wild can contain pesticide residues, heavy metals or carry pathogens.


Eating indoor-farmed insects thus poses little risk to consumers as these farms adhere to strict hygiene regulations and commercialise products which are approved by the Food Safety Authority. Controlling the food safety of wild-harvested insects is more challenging.


An important differentiation is to be made between risks associated with the consumption of farmed insects and insects harvested from the wild.


Let us dive into the differences in the sections below. Have a good read!


1. Farmed insects

farmed mealworm

According to the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), the occurrence and concentration of contaminants in insect-based products are majorly influenced by how the insects are farmed, their species, their life stage at harvest and the substrate used to feed them.


Currently, all these factors are thoroughly controlled: insect farmers adhere to strict hygiene conditions in their facilities and only rear insects that have been approved as safe for human consumption by food safety authorities.


In other words: consuming edible insects found on your supermarket shelf is at least as safe as consuming a chicken breast or minced meat found in that same supermarket. On the other hand, eating insects of which you don’t know the provenance is a bit riskier: if they were harvested in the wild, they may contain pesticide residues or carry pathogens for example.


Before you consider eating or trying edible insects bought on a verified e-commerce site or in your supermarket, keep the following in mind.


Allergens

Food allergies are a widely known public health problem: some of us are allergic to peanuts, and others are allergic to gluten for example. As insects are related to crustaceans (yes, they are distant cousins of shrimps, crabs, and lobsters!), this may cause allergies to those of us who are allergic to crustaceans.


You may thus want to double-check with your general practitioner before consuming insects if you have a crustaceans allergy. Stay on the safe side! Besides this, be sure to check the list of allergens on any insect product you consume, just like you would do for any other product!


Antinutrients

Like many other types of food such as plant- and animal-based foods, insects can contain antinutrients, compounds that can influence your body’s ability to absorb and use nutrients you take in. Examples of antinutrients that have been found in edible insects are tannin, oxalate, hydrocyanide, and chitin.


To take the example of chitin (a structural component of the exoskeleton of insects and other arthropods): while not necessarily harmful, chitin may prevent the absorption of certain nutrients such as iron or calcium for example. The same goes for phytic acid for instance, which can have the same effect on calcium, zinc, and iron and prevent your gut from absorbing these minerals.


All this being said, optimising the level of antinutrients in insects (through processing, notably) is yet to be achieved by insect food companies. Furthermore, the nutritional value of



Mycotoxins

Mycotoxins, toxic substances produced by certain types of fungi, can contaminate food and animal feed. Mycotoxins can be present in the feed given to insects grown on farms, just like they can be present in the feed given to chickens grown on farms.


As you can imagine, food safety authorities set limits on acceptable levels of mycotoxins in food products to protect public health.


2. Wild-harvested insects

wild grasshopper

While eating farmed insects you bought in your local supermarket is at least as safe as consuming meat you bought from your butcher, eating insects that were harvested from the wild is another story.


Indeed, as these insects didn’t grow in a controlled environment, it is difficult to assess where they came from and most importantly, what they fed on.


Below are a few risks associated with consuming insects which were harvested from the wild. It is important to note that insect-based products you buy in supermarkets are all made of insects which were grown in controlled environments.


Pesticide residues

While we know what specific insect species feed on, it is difficult to be sure what a specific wild-harvested cricket had for lunch over the past week. This means that cricket could have migrated from one place to another and fed on pesticide-sprayed crops. As a result, there is a high risk that cricket may have accumulated pesticide residues in its body, posing the risk of food poisoning for those who eat them.


Crickets grown on farms, on the other hand, live in a hygienic environment and are fed products which don’t contain pesticides or at least low-enough levels to be safe for human consumption.


Pathogenic microorganisms

Although little research has been done on microbial contamination of edible insects, it is a growing area of interest. Pathogenic microorganisms such as various harmful bacteria are known for causing health risks to consumers. Insects can be carriers of pathogenic microbes.


Considering that some communities in developing countries consume them raw, there is a direct health risk. In most cases, these insects are collected from the wild, in which the circumstances are unhygienic. Therefore, insects reared on farms pose a much lower risk to consumers.


pesticides sprayed

Heavy metals

Heavy metals, which include lead, mercury, arsenic and cadmium can be present in many types of food, including insects. Heavy metals are not our friends: they can cause adverse acute and chronic health effects on humans. Non-essential heavy metals such as cadmium, lead, mercury and arsenic have been reported to accumulate in edible insects, black soldier flies and mealworms, notably.


The good news is, heavy metal contamination occurs mainly through the use of contaminated water, pesticides, inorganic fertilizers and industrial chemicals. This means that insect farms respecting the strict hygiene rules and regulations enforced by food safety authorities substantially diminishes the risk of heavy metal accumulation in their farmed insects.


Final thoughts

Just like any other food, consuming edible insects has risks. A key takeaway from this article: these risks largely depend on whether you consume wild-harvested insects or insects farmed in a controlled environment.


In the case of edible insects being produced on a hygienic farm, the food safety risks are very low. Still, if you have any doubts due to e.g. allergies, please be sure to check it with your doctor before adding any insects to your diet!


Curious about insect products? Check out 3 insect burgers worth trying out!


mealworms in bowl

Source:

Imathiu, S. (2020). Benefits and food safety concerns associated with consumption of edible insects. NFS journal, 18, 1-11. Chicago https://doi.org/10.1016/j.nfs.2019.11.002

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