Insects are a natural source of food in many parts of the world | photo by Harish Shivaraman from Unsplash
There has been a lot of publicity recently about the European Union’s Executive Order that allowed cricket flour as a food additive. Media and the internet erupted with various sites claiming that this was a measure that restricted human freedom and gambled with human health.
From now on, insect flour will be found in bread, biscuits, pasta, cakes and other processed products. Dominik Chłond, PhD, Associate Professor from the Faculty of Natural Sciences of the University of Silesia, explains if there is really anything to worry about.
WERONIKA CYGAN: Professor, which insects can become ingredients of such insect flour? Can it be any species? Are we talking about adult insects or also larvae?
PROF. DOMINIK CHŁOND: According to the European Commission’s regulation of 3 January 2023, one species of insect, the house cricket (Acheta domestica), and specifically the products derived from its processing (flour), may become ingredients of food products distributed within the European Union. In this particular case, we are dealing with an insect with a so-called incomplete metamorphosis (hemimetabolism), which means that after emerging from the egg, the juvenile is similar to the adult insect (without wings and a developed reproductive system) and is called a nymph. Larva is the term used to refer to the early stages of insects with complete metamorphosis (hemimetabolism), where this particular stage is completely dissimilar to the adult insect (imago), e.g. flies or beetles. Undoubtedly, it is most economical to prepare a product from mature insects, which are the largest in size and body weight, but consequently have the most sclerotised body (they have the most chitin). The choice of species was probably not accidental; practical (ease of breeding) and economic (high reproduction and low ‘production’ costs) considerations were decisive.
WERONIKA CYGAN: Before the introduction of the new EU regulation, were there no products on the market containing processed insects?
PROF. DOMINIK CHŁOND: Of course there were, but until now they were high-protein additives in food for farm animals and food colourings (cochineal).
WERONIKA CYGAN: What is the process for obtaining flour from insects?
PROF. DOMINIK CHŁOND: The details of flour production depend on the equipment used to carry it out. However, leaving aside the technical details, the production can be reduced to three basic stages: boiling (to remove oil), drying and milling the insects.
WERONIKA CYGAN: Can these insects carry pathogens that are dangerous or even fatal to humans?
PROF. DOMINIK CHŁOND: Opinions of this kind are indeed being voiced and it cannot be denied that insects are sometimes a source of pathogens, but these opinions refer to populations in natural ecosystems. In the case of insects bred for food, we are dealing with animals whose breeding process itself is carried out in accordance with all sanitary requirements, just as is the case with other animals. You can, therefore, rest assured of the quality and safety of the end product, which undergoes additional heat treatment throughout the processing.
WERONIKA CYGAN: Is the chitin found in insects really harmful to our health? Online information suggests that its consumption is associated with increased risks of dysentery, atopic dermatitis, cancer and lupus.
PROF. DOMINIK CHŁOND: A lot of anecdotal information can be found on the web, and not only about insects. Of course, nowadays allergies, especially food allergies, are ubiquitous and increasingly better diagnosed. There is a risk that a small percentage of the human population may show allergic symptoms to selected components contained in insect flour, but I would not expect them to become dominant over other food allergies. As far as chitin is concerned, there is no denying that the insect body is covered with an exoskeleton made up of this substance. However, we should keep in mind the fact that chitin is a complex polysaccharide (sugar) found not only in the body of insects but also in other organisms, such as fungi, which are commonly processed and consumed in our culture. It is also worth noting that ingested chitin is not absorbed by the human body.
WERONIKA CYGAN: It has been reported in some media that insect meal is supposed to be an alternative to meat and will eventually lead to a total ban on meat consumption. Do meat lovers actually have a reason to worry? Is it true that we could lose control over what we eat?
PROF. DOMINIK CHŁOND: Insect meal may turn out to be an alternative to meat due to its very high protein content, but in my opinion, it is unlikely to lead to a total ban on meat — meat lovers can rest assured. People who care about the quality of their food and check the composition of the products they buy will continue to do so. Let’s remember that, by law, every producer is obliged to put the detailed composition of the product on the packaging, and it is the consumer’s right to choose the product that meets his or her requirements regarding its ingredients.
WERONIKA CYGAN: Opponents of the use of insect flour claim that the argument of it being a solution to help mitigate climate change is just pulling the wool over people’s eyes. Is it plain propaganda then?
PROF. DOMINIK CHŁOND: It is difficult to provide an answer to such a question. The climate change we are currently observing is intensifying as a result of the environmental degradation observed over the last few decades. Given these climate changes and their rapid nature, we can state with a high degree of certainty that they will not be offset by a gradual change in the diet of the European Union’s population. Furthermore, it seems highly likely that convincing Europeans to supplement their diets with insect protein will not be easy. We should keep in mind the fact that in the case of modern European cultures, insects are not regarded as a primary or even complementary source of food.
WERONIKA CYGAN: Some people fear that the introduction of insect meal to the food market will threaten agriculture. Is this true?
PROF. DOMINIK CHŁOND: In my opinion, this is highly unlikely if we are talking about the possible competitiveness of ‘insect farms’ in relation to traditional agriculture, which will undoubtedly continue to be the primary source of food products for humans. Of course, we cannot predict right now whether we will not, as a species and as a society, be forced to change our diet drastically in the near future, but let us keep in mind the ever-present option to choose, so let me emphasise again — a recommendation is not an order. The tradition of preparing and eating food in European countries is changing towards a more multicultural approach, which, of course, as a ‘chef’, I very much appreciate, and I believe that one should at least try ‘other’ flavours in order to empirically get yourself a chance to be convinced or not of a certain product or taste.
WERONIKA CYGAN: Where do you think the resistance to insects in one’s diet comes from, especially since in this case it is not about eating the insects themselves but only the ingredients derived from their processing?
PROF. DOMINIK CHŁOND: It seems to be culturally determined, and habits, especially dietary habits, are not easy to change (which of course is not impossible), and certainly not by introducing recommendations. I know it is impolite to answer a question with a question, but if a person cannot imagine eating an insect, a fried one for example, will insect flour win them over? If a person does not eat fish, will fish patties be considered a possible meal ingredient? Of course, there are many examples like these, but I do not doubt that we will find a group of people who are willing to try something new, perhaps even discover flavours they would not expect from a meal made from insects.
WERONIKA CYGAN: Thank you for the interview.