Tag Archives: insects

Allergies and Insects

Bee AllergenInsects can cause an allergic reaction in people. Generally speaking, one mechanism is through a food consumption, secondly is through environmental exposure.

What does the FDA think about food allergens?

The FDA’s primary concern with regard to food allergens are the ‘Big 8’. They are Milk, Eggs, Fish, Crustacean shellfish, Tree nuts, Peanuts, Wheat and, Soybeans. These foods account for over 90% of food allergic reactions. There are over 160 foods that can cause allergies but these 8 are the only ones that require labeling by law. People allergic the shells may see cross reactivity to insects. The prevalence of shellfish allergy in the United States is around 2%. The majority of the population can consume insects without significant risk of an allergic reaction. I do recommend voluntary allergen labeling for packaged insect products. Consumer education will help general acceptance of insects as food.

Environmental insect matter can cause allergy symptoms. Skin contact and dust inhalation can have adverse effects on people farming and post-harvest processing of insects. Fecal matter and dried insect parts can become airborne and subsequently be inhaled. Sensitization can occur from repeat exposure. Issues with worker related environmental allergens would involve the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). I am curious to know if insect farmers that currently produce high volumes have come across this issue.

What should we do about insect allergens?

  • Regularly clean farming facilities including the farming equipment and other building surfaces to remove dust and particulate matter.
  • Monitor the health of insect farmers for development of allergic sensitization. Use personal protective equipment such as mask and googles when appropriate.
  • Limit dispersal of fine particulates when making insect flour through engineering controls.
  • Label insect containing food products with an allergen statement such as ‘People allergic to shell fish may also be allergic to insects’.

Four Quality Factors of Food

Quality Factors

Safety, convenience, taste and health are intrinsic quality factors that affect food choices. Let’s take a closer look at these factors and see how edible insects score.

Safety – Unglamorous but the most important factor. Safety hazard examples include pathogens (E. coli), heavy metals (mercury) and pesticide residues. If a food product doesn’t meet basic safety requirements, it won’t ever make it into your kitchen. When comparing food choices, safety is not a point of differentiation because most safety risks have been eliminated for the consumer by using good manufacturing practices and processing. Wild harvested insects are not recommended for consumption because there is a risk that they may have picked up pesticide residue along their travels.

Convenience – Often taken for granted, convenience varies widely.

Not convenient: dry chick peas

Convenient: canned chick peas

Very convenient: prepared hummus

When it comes to edible insects, processing live insects can be quite a handful for the chef. Raising your own insects takes devotion. Providing minimally processed and processed insects is a possible opportunity to gain further acceptance of edible insects

Taste – This is the space where most of the competition takes place. After all, taste is king. If someone doesn’t like the taste of a food, they are not going to eat it again. Taste is usually a tradeoff between other factors. Canned crickets are more convenient than frozen but the taste and texture is probably better in frozen crickets. Crickets are visually striking which does not earn them any points. People generally don’t like the idea of an insect looking back at you when you are about to eat it. Turning crickets into a flour is an excellent way to by-pass this issue. If poached or fried insects are being prepared… chop them up.

Health – Based on large food company behavior, health only has one category, nutrition. America’s food system is not doing an adequate job addressing socio-economic costs. Brands are quick to tell you how much fiber is in their product but they don’t tell you if it’s GMO fiber or if it’s highly processed fiber. It doesn’t help that individual consumers are not aware that their food choices also have far reaching environmental, social and economic influences. Health is why people should stop eating feed lot beef. Insects get 5 stars for health.

Are insects ready for the masses?

Even though people who practice entomophagy feel that insects are safe to eat, the average person may not be so confident. When communicating about edible insects, safety should be addressed by stating that insects, that are produced using GMPs, are safe to eat. Safety will probably become a non-issue as people become aware that insects are tasty and good for you. Taste and convenience is where our food system does an excellent job at creating craveable and easy to prepare food. Just about every store sells cold soda. There is tremendous opportunity for innovation in these area. Insects can be prepared in a variety of ways and different species offer unique tastes and textures. Literature often sites that insects taste excellent and are considered delicacies. We just have to find the right presentation for the American palate. For health, the preferred way to raise insects is through regional farming operations. We need to be mindful when sourcing insects so that they are not raised on chicken meal and preferably not sourced internationally. I think insects are ready.

Feed For Edible Insects

Livestock feed is especially important for insects. One of the reasons is that we consume the whole insect, including what is in their gut. Their gut can be purged by not feeding them for a few days before harvest. How effective this is varies species to species and I would say is probably not worth doing. I feel a better approach is use high quality feed. You can also gut load insects. It involves feeding insects particular nutrients right before harvest so when they are consumed, the contents of the gut are also ingested, providing additional nutrients. This practice is used when feeding crickets to lizards so they get all of the nutrients they need. I think this is not necessary for people because there will be getting other nutrients from other parts of their diet. An idea to explore is to add seasoning to the feed and see if the flavor is apparent. Cinnamon might pair well with the nutty flavor is some insects.

Another reason why feed is important is for sustainability. Sustainability is a core reason why we should be incorporating insects into our diets. Insect have a high feed conversion rate and low waste. In Thailand, high protein animal feed is used to raise insects according to a recent FAO document (http://www.fao.org/docrep/017/i3246e/i3246e.pdf). Feeding insects chicken defeats the purpose.

So what should we feed insects? I feel the best answer is an organic vegan diet. Let take a look at wax worm feed. The main components of wax worm feed that I have seen are honey, oats and glycerin. The glycerin is added to control water availability and texture. It would be better if there were formulations that don’t have glycerin. Honey can be replaced by high fructose corn syrup to lower costs. Maybe cane sugar syrup will be a suitable compromise. There is considerable flexibility in insect feed. As a consumer, you will ultimately decide what is in the insect feed. But please, no chicken.

I feel that producers need to be transparent about the feed they use to raise their insects. By doing this they can gain customer trust and customers will feel more comfortable consuming insects. Western culture feels eating insects is taboo. Educating consumers about what insects eat will help alleviate this issue. Open and honest communication with consumers and potential customers is the best way to gain acceptance and engagement with entomophagy.