Insect Eating: The Chitin Diet

28. December 2015
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Fried grasshoppers, mealworm chocolate, maggot risotto. This could all belong to the diet of the future. Insects are healthy and can be easily raised. But what are the risks in their consumption? And what kind of challenges make their way into medicine here?

Until now, they have been mostly found in specialty restaurants and internet shops: beetles, silkworms, worms or grasshoppers. But that could change: The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations is committed to bringing more insects onto the menu – and definitely in Europe as well. According to FAO they contain many healthy nutrients such as unsaturated fatty acids, vitamins and minerals and could be used as an alternative protein source to feed the world population. Unlike other animals, they are easy to grow and environmentally friendly – because insects can feed on organic waste, require little water and land area, and produce significantly less greenhouse gas and ammonia than do cattle and pigs.

Worldwide about two billion people eat insects – especially in Asia, Africa and Latin America. In most Western countries however, people look upon eating insects with disgust and regard it as primitive, says the FAO.

In recent times the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has been dealing with the potential risks of insects as food. As part of this the commission assessed scientific studies and other information, examining and checking risk factors in the production, processing, storage and consumption of creepy crawlies. At the heart of the matter in particular are biological and chemical hazards: pathogens such as bacteria, fungi and parasites and harmful substances such as heavy metals, toxins or hormones. In addition, the risk of allergic reaction was examined.

The decisive factors are controlled breeding and feeding

The main outcome: the risks depend on a number of factors, such as the methods by which the insects are produced and processed, the life cycle phase, and especially the food provided to the edible arthropods. If insects are fed with approved feed, correspondingly the potential dangers – such as pathogens or pollutants – probably carry the same risk which other non-processed sources of protein carry, according to the report. The risk for prions was in insects equal to or less than with other animals says the EFSA – provided that their food does not contain a human protein or that of ruminant animals.

In addition, the disposal of waste products – such as excretions or dead insects – can cause health hazards to arise. However, this can be minimised if the same measures concerning waste are exercised as with other animal species, it states in the EFSA report. “If insects are bred, fed, processed and stored with respect to the statutory provisions given for food production in Europe, the risks when consuming them are relatively small”, says Birgit Rumpold from Leibniz Institute for Agricultural Engineering Potsdam-Bornim e. V (Germany).

Many questions still remain unanswered

However, there are in relation to the topic “edible insects” a whole series of open questions. According to EFSA, information sources on chemical contaminants and pathogens that attack mammals are still very limited. Similarly, systematic data on insect consumption by humans is lacking. “Further research on these subjects is strongly recommended,” the scientist committee emphases.

In fact, additional risks could emanate from insects. It could therefore be that people who have allergies to dust mites or shellfish and crustaceans could develop cross allergies to insects [Paywall]. “Insects contain tropomyosin, and there is evidence that other substances might possess allergenic potential”, explains Rumpold. “It is therefore important to clearly identify insects as an ingredient in food – as is the case with nuts”. Allergic symptoms may appear in the form of rashes, inflammation of the eyes and nose, swelling or asthma. A risk also exists for people who have frequent contact with insects – ie. for workers on insect farms or cooking staff preparing the insects. “Nevertheless, for most people there is low risk of allergic reactions in the consumption of or contact with insects”, it says in a FAO report.

Little is also known about the impact of chitin, a part of the exoskeleton of insects. “Studies suggest that chitin has antimicrobial effects and a positive impact on the immune defence”, says Rumpold. “On the other hand it could also trigger allergic reactions. In addition, little is known about whether chitin is degraded when eating – and what its affects are if large amounts of chitin are eaten”. Again, further research is necessary. However, it is possible to remove the chitin prior to consumption. According to studies, this leads to better absorption of proteins and to increased digestibility.

Risky Insect delights in tropical countries

Unlike in Europe, where strict quality controls for food apply, quite different health risks may occur in other regions of the world. Many of the 1,900 species of insects that are eaten around the world are simply collected in nature — or raised under less stringent conditions. This increases the risk that they may contain pathogens or harmful chemical substances – such as heavy metals or pesticides. Improper processing or storage can lead to serious health problems as well. Thus the world of insect consumption already includes accounts of cases of food poisoning via rotten meat or fungal toxins (aflatoxins), parasitosis and zoonoses.

In addition, some insects can cause poisoning if they are not processed in a certain way. For instance the consumption of African silkworms that have not been sufficiently treated with heat can trigger ataxia symptoms and consciousness disturbance disorders. In other species, poisonous spines or hairs have to be removed, the animals need to be sufficiently soaked in water or boiled for a long time. Finally poisonous species can be mistaken for edible ones – such as occurs with some grasshopper or beetle species in Africa.

Doctors in the tropics when dealing with corresponding symptoms should also inquire about whether such insects have been consumed. In addition, education plays an important role. “It is important that stakeholders be informed about the correct handling, processing and storage of insects”, Hans G. Schnabel of the University of Wisconsin writes in the FAO report.

In Europe it’s a rather exotic niche

Such unusual or even poisonous insects will probably not come onto the European market. The greatest potential as food or feed in this part of the world, according to EFSA, is for houseflies, mealworms, crickets and silkworms. However, it is questionable whether insect dishes in Europe will ever make up a big market. “But this would require that cost-effective, automated rearing farms be developed in which safe insect products can be produced”, writes Arnold van Huis [Paywall] of the Wageningen University in the Netherlands. In addition, strategies need to be developed to increase the acceptance of edible insects and to make their environmental benefits significantly clear, says van Huis.

“In the field of animal nutrition there is a realistic chance of using insects as an environmentally friendly alternative to fish meal or soy on a large scale,” says Birgit Rumpold. “Edible insects are however more likely to remain an exotic niche in Europe”.

Original publication:

Risk profile related to production and consumption of insects as food and feed
EFSA Scientific Committee; EFSA Journal, doi: 10.2903/j.efsa.2015.4257

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David Wiggin
David Wiggin

I can only assume that as “other animals” raised for our consumption are not respected or fed correctly, not treated as sentient beings nor are their excretions suitably and timely removed that the health risks are enormous. They are stuffed with antibiotics and as a result we cannot successfully treat minor infections. We neither need insects nor other animals for “food production”. What a definition without respct that is. We can live long and healthy VEGAN lives which in turn stop animal suffering and totally solves the problem of global warming. This research is unnecassary and the time effort and funds could be put to better use looking at sustainable farming with GM and animals. thanks

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