Emerging food allergy: Edible insects

Over two billion people around the world include edible insects in their diet on a regular basis, and interest in insects as a sustainable source of nutrition is increasing in Western countries. In parallel with further development of regulations around the sale of insects for food, the associated food allergy risks are now starting to be explored.

A recent review provides an overview of past studies relating to food allergy to insects; the proteins involved in insect allergy including cross-reactive proteins; and the possibility to alter the allergenic potential of insects by food processing and digestion.

Food allergy to insects has been reported for many different insect species, including silkworm, mealworm, caterpillars, locust, grasshopper, cicada, and bee. For cockroaches, which are also edible insects, only studies on inhalation allergy have been reported in the literature.

As both insects and crustaceans (e.g. prawn, shrimp) are in the arthropod family (having an exoskeleton and segmented bodies), and crustacean allergies are both relatively common and potentially severe, cross-reactivity of insect proteins with crustacean proteins is perhaps the primary food allergy concern.

Indeed, the proteins tropomyosin and arginine kinase have been identified as the main allergens within insects that can invoke an allergic response when consumed by sensitised individuals – these two proteins are known for triggering crustacea and house dust mite allergies.

The review also found thermal processing and digestion techniques did not eliminate insect protein allergenicity.

In 2017, the NSW Food Authority published a fact sheet that provides a general summary of the local regulatory requirements relating to edible insects. The Food Standards Australia & New Zealand (FSANZ) Advisory Committee on Novel Foods (ACNF) has undertaken an assessment of three insect species for human consumption: Zophobas morio (super mealworm); Achaeta domestica (house crickets); Tenebrio molitor (mealworm beetle).

These insect species were assessed and categorised as non-traditional and not novel foods in Australia and New Zealand. There were no safety concerns for human consumption. However, labelling of the true nature of the food is required, as is adherence to all other relevant aspects of the Food Standards Code.