The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has produced its first ever complete assessment of the safety of a food product derived from insects.
The agency offers its assessments as an opinion, leaving it up to the EU to decide whether to put the development into practice.
According to the assessment published yesterday, the insect source in question – dried mealworm larvae (Tenebrio molitor) – is safe for human consumption in either of its two forms, either as a whole dried insect or as a powder.
The mealworm consists of three main ingredients: protein, fat and fibre in the form of chitin in the exoskeleton. And while protein is an important component, the exact percentage is generally exaggerated as the normal process for measuring protein levels read the chitin as protein, whereas it is indigestible.
“The Panel notes that considering the composition of the NF [novel food] and the proposed conditions of use, the consumption of the NF is not nutritionally disadvantageous,” the assessment concludes.
“The submitted toxicity studies from the literature did not raise safety concerns. The Panel considers that the consumption of the NF may induce primary sensitisation and allergic reactions to yellow mealworm proteins and may cause allergic reactions in subjects with allergy to crustaceans and dust mites.”
And having said that, the panel decides that the novel food is safe.
The EU’s Novel Food regulation came into effect on 1 January 2018. Since then the agency has received a variety of applications for assessment, including foods derived from plants, from seaweed, from herbs and fruits, as well as insect protein.
Edible insects are not, however, novel food when seen on a global scale. In most parts of the world, insects form a greater or lesser part of the diet, ranging from bees, beetles and butterflies to locusts, crickets and the appetisingly-named green stinkbug.
And while the practice may be novel to most parts of Europe, the same could also at one time have been said for bananas, potatoes, tomatoes, maize and rice.
However the process for obtaining authorisation for the production of a novel food is cumbersome, as Dr Helle Knutsen, a member of the EFSA expert panel on nutrition explained.
“Novel food applications are so varied that we need many types of scientific expertise to assess them: nutrition, toxicology, chemistry and microbiology to name a few. The working group composition reflects this and together our scientists form an experienced multi-disciplinary group.”
The fiat given now by the agency will likely not mean long lines at the supermarket of people looking for their first mealworm pancakes, pies or puddings, said Giovanni Sogari, a social and consumer researcher at the University of Parma in Italy.
“There are cognitive reasons derived from our social and cultural experiences, the so-called ‘yuck factor’, that make the thought of eating insects repellent to many Europeans. With time and exposure such attitudes can change.”