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Eating Bugs and Insects?
Let the Buyer Beware
In the last few years, we’ve seen a growing push of what seems to be the destruction of our food supply. We have recently seen the loss of 18,000 dairy cattle in a Texas fire, the loss of 100,000 egg-laying hens in a Connecticut fire, loss of 25,000 pigs in several fires, and the loss of many food-processing plants around the world.
Over the same time, we’ve also seen an increase push to get us to eat bugs.
The Edible Insect market seems to be growing by leaps and bounds. Are cricket flour edibles and the use of black soldier fly larvae (BSFL) as a source of food for poultry, fish, swine, and exotic pets just now becoming a thing? Or, like so many other factoids that are now being exposed, has this ‘food source’ been coming forward for quite some time? Let’s take a look.
Our Wonderfully Diverse World
Nature has been the source of medicinal agents since the beginning of humanity. From flora and fauna to fish and stones, there is a long list of items used in various cultures to cure illness and improve overall health. It is estimated that nearly 80% of the global population relies on local remedies and traditional modes of practice for their primary health care needs. Nature has also been a source of compounds for modern medicine. More than 20 years ago, it was estimated that 119 compounds from 90 plants had been used as single entity medical agents or had evolved into complex pharmaceutical products. There are most likely many more now.
Earth is a magnificent, living biome. It is a large, naturally occurring community of plants, flying creatures, and both land and water animals. Its ecosystems are classified by geographical distribution. The major terrestrial ecosystems are desert, forest, grassland, and taiga (coniferous tundra); the non-terrestrial ecosystems include tje regions of Artic/Antarctica, aquatic/marine, and various wetlands.
Established in 1964, the International Union for Conservation (IUC) of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species has evolved into the world’s most comprehensive source on animal, fungus and plant species. In 2021, the IUC listed 2.13 million species on the planet. By taxonomic groups, there are more than 11,000 birds and 11,000 reptiles, about 36,000 different types of aquatic species, and around 6,000 different types of mammals. The total number of plant species is around 250,000. By far, the largest group of species on the planet are insects.
Insects, as a taxonomic class, are the most diverse group of living creatures on earth. The IUC estimates there are more than 1,000,000 different species of insects, representing about 90% of all life forms on Earth. I read many years ago that if a nuclear holocaust occurred, insects would survive (especially the hardy cockroaches!) and would replenish and take over the planet.
Humans mostly considered insects to be a personal nuisance. The invasive pests that gobble up and ruin crops and attack animals are infuriating. The disdain of insects has lead to the massive production of insecticides and pesticides in an attempt to control the bugs.
In fact, according to the WHO:
More than 1,000 pesticides are used around the world to ensure food is not damaged or destroyed by pests. Each pesticide has different properties and toxicological adverse effects, based on the dose and the route of exposure (inhalation, swallowing, topical exposure, etc). Insecticides are commonly used in agricultural and industrial applications, as well as in households and commercial buildings (mostly to control of roaches, ants, and termites).
Even though most of these creeping critters are, well, creepy, in many parts of the world, insects are a normal part of a diet. A recent study (2017) estimates approximately 2,100 insect species are defined as edible. In more than 140 countries, especially in Asia and Africa, many types of insects are considered delicacies. For Westerners, trying a few bug or worm snacks while on an exotic adventure may generate novel stories after the trip, but eating bugs and worms as a regular practice? Not happening in Western culture.
As far back as 1998, an early cookbook appeared on the market called “Eat-a-Bug: 33 ways to cook grasshoppers, ants, water bugs, spiders, centipedes and their kin,” by David George Gordon. He had traveled the world to gather culinary anecdotes and insights on how various cultures prepared and ate insects.
But it wasn’t until around 2012 that the idea of farming insects on a large-scale for human consumption and for animal feed started to get traction. Called entomophagy, the U.N. moved to change the Western aversion to eating bugs. They worked with the FAO (United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization) to write a paper in 2013 on the use of Edible Insects to feed the world.
Capitalizing on the idea that insect farms could become “global sustainability projects,” the FAO asserted that insect farms could replace the large, dirty, huge environmental footprint that came from raising cattle, pigs, sheep, and chickens. They promoted insect farms “as clean food production centers” that use little water, require only a small area of land, and emit almost no greenhouse gasses.
The FAO argued that insects were a good source of protein, fatty acids, vitamins, and minerals, making them a wonderful food source to feed the anticipated 9Billion humans anticipated as the population balloons. The paper created a lot of buzz and it didn’t take long for the first commercially available bug food products to appear. Since then, many startups have launched using various species of bugs to create protein-based flours.
(Touchstone - no bugs in this protein powder!)
According to the website, Bugsolutely.com:
The first products were biscuits and cracker-like chips made with cricket flour. In 2014, Big Cricket Farms, in Youngstown, Ohio, opened as the first farm in America to raise crickets exclusively for human consumption. Initially, Big Cricket Farms held nearly six million crickets in a compact, urban setting. The crickets were carefully raised and then quietly slaughtered by ‘peacefully’ freezing them to death.
Calling itself a ‘food tech start up,’ Bugsolutely was founded in Bangkok in 2015, producing what it called a ‘nutritionally advantageous’ cricket pasta consisting of 80% wheat flour and 20% enriched cricket flour. In 2017, Bugsolutely expanded into China, where it developed silkworm-flour based products, including the innovative Bella Pupa snack. Their site postsf a list of 100s of restaurants around the world that have bug entrees on their menus (current as of 2019).
Around that same time, other types of edible insects, including silkworms and meal worms, began to be sold in Western markets as novelty foods. Worldwide, the most popular edible insects include beetles and beetle larvae, wasps and wasp larvae, grasshoppers, butterflies, and moths.
Amazon actually lists several books under the category of Insect Cookbooks if you’d like to try out your culinary talents using a variety of bugs, from grasshoppers to mealworms. This book, Eat Grub, has entrées ranging from small plates meals to desserts, and even has recipes for cocktails using whole and ground insects.
Expanding far beyond The Big Cricket Farm’s 6 million bugs, the Aspire Food Group completed the world’s largest cricket farm in 2022, with a plan to harvest more than 2 billion insects per year. Some of the foods created with cricket powder include pasta, pasta sauce, meatballs, and schnitzel.
More than bugs in our food?
In 2018, the FDA published a handbook outlining the levels of unavoidable ‘defects’ that are allowed in our food. Apparently, the FDA things this is ok because this filth is not a hazard to humans.
The handbook advises:
The FDA set these action levels because it is economically impractical to grow, harvest, or process raw products that are totally free of non-hazardous, naturally occurring, unavoidable defects. FDA's technical and regulatory experts in filth and extraneous materials use a variety of criteria, often in combination, to determine the significance and regulatory impact of the findings.
The criteria considered is based on the reported findings (e.g., lengths of hairs, sizes of insect fragments, distribution of filth in the sample, and combinations of filth types found). Moreover, FDA interprets the findings considering available scientific information (e.g., ecology of animal species represented) and the knowledge of how a product is grown, harvested, and processed.
The FDA handbook lists many dozens of foods, spices, nuts, canned and frozen food products with the amount of mold, dead insects, insect filth, fly eggs, human hair fragments, rodent hair and excreta, and more that are allowed in each 10 to 100 grams of food.
An article on the Arrow Exterminators Blog published in 2019 discusses everyday items that contain bits and pieces of bugs and other insect fragments allowed by the FDA as “benign.” It will make you cringe and I’ll warn you: if you look at the handbook’s list or this article, it’s pretty disgusting.
(This graphic is from 2013 - Imagine what it would look like now)
The Risks of Eating Bugs
The FAO generated an updated version of its 2013 paper in 2021. The update, “Looking at Edible Insects from a FOOD SAFETY Perspective” takes a more reserved approach in describing the downsides of this zealous food farming industry and the risks of eating insects.
The introduction includes:
The benefits of this emerging food source must be weighed against all possible challenges, for instance, all of the food safety issues that could pose health threats to consumers. As with other foods, edible insects can also be associated with a number of food safety hazards.
Insects and crustaceans (shrimp, lobster, prawns, etc.) belong to the arthropod family. While allergic reactions to shellfish are well-known, the potential allergenic risks associated with consuming edible insects needs further investigation.
Severe allergic reactions to yellow mealworms in persons allergic to shellfish was verified by double-blind, placebo-controlled food challenge trials. It has been suggested that people with shrimp allergies could be at a risk of food reactions not only to several species of mealworms, but most likely also for other insects and insect products (pg. 44).
Other insects known to cause allergic reactions include silkworms, grasshoppers, locusts, and cicadas. People with known allergies to house dust mites (via inhalation) may also be allergic to edible insects like yellow mealworm, mopane worm, house cricket, and desert locust.
Another risk is that insects can be a vector for microorganisms that may pose a risk to humans and animals, either directly or indirectly. Insects can harbor pathogens on their surface, in their gut, and as part of their reproductive cycle. It is not known if these extrinsic pathogens may be harmful if eaten. It is also not known if they can be completely removed before processing. Further, the full scope of the microbiota of edible insects is unknown. Therefore, many of these concerns are species-specific, with little known to assess the risks.
Bacteria have been associated with both farm-raised and wild-caught edible insects. Many bacterial species are pathogenic to humans. They can also be harbored in the end product, shortening the shelf-life of the insects or insect flours. Spore-forming bacteria in GI tracts of the edible bugs can withstand boiling, drying, and deep frying. Clostridium sordellii, an anaerobic gram-positive bacterium, is commonly found in the soil and sewage, can become a lethal infection in humans if the spore is activated. It is dangerous and it is unknown if this pathogen can actually cause infections in humans through transmission of edible insects.
Crickets and other insects are known to be vectors for parasites. Based on data collected from human autopsies and analyses of insects traditionally consumed in southeast Asia, possible transmission of foodborne intestinal flukes to humans have been suggested. Coccidia parasites can be found in chicken manure. If insects are reared on poultry manure, these parasites can be fed back into chickens as animal food. If the parasites are passed on to humans is not known. ( pg. 37)
Another significant concern when eating insects or insect products is the risk of biological and chemical contaminants carried within the GI tract of the bug. Unlike eating livestock, insects are consumed by humans and in animal feed in their entirety. Therefore, how the bugs are commercially farmed, fed, housed, and processed can determine the risk within the food chain.
Insects grown on agricultural waste may be exposed to mycotoxins, pesticides and other chemical hazards like toxic metals and dioxins. Organophosphates and chlorinated pesticides (benzene hexachloride, lindane and aldrin) were identified in edible locust found in Kuwait. The potential accumulation of these contaminants in insects and then be passed on in human food or animal feed is not known.
High levels of lead were found in dried grasshoppers from the state of Oaxaca, Mexico. The bugs were identified as the source of elevated blood lead levels during an outbreak of lead poisoning in a migrant population in Monterey county in California in 2007. It has since been recommended that insects used as human food and animal feed be tested for levels of cadmium, lead, mercury and arsenic before released to the market. Unfortunately, little has been published on the testing and what levels determined to be toxic. Even more concerning is that little testing is done at all.
Additional concerning chemical compounds that have been found in or on edible bugs include several types of flame retardants, dioxins, mineral oil hydrocarbons, resins, plasticizers, PVCs, and aluminum. Even processing the insects can be dangerous. When heated or cooked, the chemical-thermal reactions with the toxins on their shells or within their guts can lead to release of toxic compounds that accumulate in the protein meal.
A concern that’s seldom considered is the hard parts of insects when eaten whole. Stingers, wings, rostrum (spiney part of the head), and spines on shinbones. Consumers must be cautious when eating roasted bugs and be aware of the possibility of these insect parts in flours.
Mass production? Not so fast.
At first glance, insect farming appears to provide a good quality, environmentally sustainable alternative for animal-sourced protein. However, a closer look reveals several complications and many knowledge gaps.
There is a general lack of regulatory frameworks for producing and commercializing insects largely due to many knowledge gaps.
Challenges include the general absence of regulations governing the production and trade of insects as food and feed.
Few safety regulations have been established for the mass production of insects in farms.
Research is needed into the pathogens and the parasites that can infect insect species and be passed on to the human or animal end-users.
Standardized testing of insect meals and flours need to be done for a broad range of metals and chemicals to establish safety standards.
Standardization methods to verify authenticity of insect-based products and to determine whether the contents truly match the label are important for consumer confidence.
Most countries lack insect-specific legislation, standards, labelling and other regulatory instruments to govern the production and commercialization of insects in both food and feed supply chains.
Mislabeling of insect-based products may have food safety implications, especially in terms of severe allergy risks.
All of these concerns need to be fully addressed before the environmental “sustainability benefits” associated with farming and mass production edible bug products can moved ahead. While insects may become good source of protein in the future, the benefits cannot be over emphasized when so many concerns regarding food safety remain.
In the meantime, read the labels and let the buyer beware. Don’t eat their bugs.
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