In many countries they are already eaten, that is; insects. And yet, for better or worse in Western countries the attitude is a negative one. Insects are associated with disease, infection, dirt and poor sanitation.
But something is changing. From 1 January 2018, with the advent of the new foods law being enforced (Reg EU 2015/2283), the so-called "novel foods", Europe is also getting closer to the possible introduction of insects into our diet. In fact, EFSA (European Food Safety Authority) is receiving several requests for evaluation of new foods (e.g. algae-based foods, non-native fruits, herbal products derived from plants) also including several varieties of edible insects.
Ermolaos Ververis, chemist and EFSA food science expert, who coordinated the elaboration of the first opinion adopted on insects used as novel foods, stressed that "insects are complex organisms, and this makes the characterization of the composition of food products problematic. Understanding its microbiology is essential, also considering that the whole insect is consumed. Various foods derived from insects are often declared a source of protein for nutrition. Insect-based formulas can be high in protein, although the useful protein levels may be overestimated when chitin is present, one of the main substances that make up the exoskeleton of insects. A fundamental point of the evaluation is that many food allergies are related to proteins, so we have to evaluate whether the consumption of insects can trigger allergic reactions. Such reactions can be caused by individual sensitivity to insect proteins, by cross-reacting with other allergens or by residual allergens from insect feed, for example gluten. It is a demanding job because the quality and availability of data varies, and there is a lot of diversity between one insect species and another".
Evaluating these novel foods is not easy. In fact, as stated by Dr. Helle Knutsen, molecular biologist and toxicologist, as well as a member of the EFSA expert group on human nutrition and chairman of the working group on novel foods: “The requests for evaluation of novel foods are so varied that we need diversified scientific expertise to evaluate them. Just to name a few: human nutrition, toxicology, chemistry and microbiology. The composition of the working group reflects them and, together, our scientists form a multidisciplinary team of great experience”.
In mid-January 2021, EFSA gave a positive opinion for human consumption to the thermally dried yellow flour maggot (Tenebrio molitor), whole or in the form of flour. But before arriving on the shelves it must also pass the validation by the European Commission and receive the authorization from the member states for marketing on its territory. This is the first decision on a food of this type, which could form a path for a large number of similar products to follow. EFSA is currently evaluating a dozen requests on edible insects.
It is estimated that, in 2050, the world population will reach around 9 billion people. The integration of insects in the diet could partially replace the intake of animal meat. In fact, the breeding of insects requires much fewer resources (water, land, feed) than the intensive breeding of common animals and this would also lead to a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.
Although the majority of Italians (54%) consider insects to be foreign to the national food culture, it is not impossible that in a few years we may find flours and snacks based on larvae and grasshoppers on the shelves.