Eating mealworms, insect larvae seen as an alternative to beef and pork, may pose a risk to people allergic to shellfish or dust mites, Dutch researchers said.
Laboratory tests found a possible link, Geert Houben, food-safety business line manager at TNO, said by phone today. TNO conducted a study with the University Medical Centre Utrecht. The organizations will now serve the larvae to people to test for allergic reactions in a separate follow-up study carried out with the national food-safety authority, Houben said.
Insects are nutritious and convert feed more efficiently than cows or pigs while producing fewer greenhouse gases, according to the United Nations’ Food & Agriculture Organization, which promotes their use as food. Mealworms are a “serious candidate” to replace poultry, beef and pork, according to Delft, Netherlands-based TNO.
“There’s more and more international activity in the quest for alternative protein sources,” Houben said. “We’re cheering on this search for alternatives, but you do have to keep an eye out for possible risks.”
The follow-up study’s results are expected in the middle of next year, according to Houben. Sensitivity to shellfish is the most common adult food allergy, affecting about 2 percent of U.S. adults, research shows.
“It’s clear this type of risk always exists when new foods are introduced,” Harry Wichers, a professor at the Netherlands’ Wageningen University Research Center who studies immune-system responses to food, said by phone. “Proper labeling will go a long way.”
Wichers cited kiwifruit as an example of a food that was never suspected to cause allergies and was revealed to be a cause after it was introduced.
Predicting the incidence and severity of possible allergic reactions to mealworms is difficult and requires more research, such as the planned follow-up study, according to Wichers. Reactions to shellfish can be “very serious,” he said.
French chef David Faure, who serves mealworms in his Michelin-starred restaurant Aphrodite in Nice, has praised the nutty tones of the insects, which he adds to a codfish dish as well as dessert. While at least 2 billion people worldwide eat insects as part of their traditional diet, the practice has yet to become popular in Europe or the U.S., according to the FAO.
“When you start changing proteins in food, the first thing you have to consider is allergies,” TNO’s Houben said. “Insect proteins are an obvious case to study because they’re a focus of attention right now.”