We interviewed Dr. Francesco Gai, researcher at the Institute of Sciences of Food Production (ISPA) at the Italian National Research Council (CNR)
As for edible insects and entomophagy, can you tell us exactly on which studies and trials are based ISPA activities?
Starting from 2012, in cooperation with many other colleagues coming from different universities and research institutions throughout Italy, ISPA is conducting multiple trials concerning the use of flours obtained from insects as poultry and fish feed. These flours are being studied as substitutes of fish and soya flours currently used in the production of feed for the above mentioned species. More recently our Institute also began to carry out research aimed at to analyzing the quality and safety of insects conceived as “food”, and more specifically, as food for humans. In particular, we are researching on the protein content and the aminoacid values of insects as well as their possible allergen power.
What public and private subjects are you currently collaborating with and with which goals?
Along with several colleagues of the Universities of Torino, Firenze, Napoli, Camerino and Insubria we are conducting experimental trials on fish and poultry species, that is we are examining different parameters about the sensory and organoleptic quality of animal products (poultry and fish fillets) fed by flours derived from insects.
We are also cooperating with foreign private companies, such as HermetiaBaruth GmbH and YnsectFrance: we are testing the use of insect flour produced by them as fed for poultry and aquaculture, for an hypothetical further use on an industrial scale.
Is there any evidence of particular problems regarding the rearing and consumption of insects intended for human (and animal)consumption?
As for the insects intended for human consumption the challenges to face are related to food security and in particular to their potential allergen power that might be similar to that observed in patients allergic to shellfish. Concerning insects for animal nutrition instead, and particularly for fish species, the main negative aspect of insect flour is its lacking of omega-3 fatty acid content that finally affects the nutritional value of the fish filets fed with those flour.
Did you carry out any survey on how the different substrates used for insects breeding affect the food security of the products produced?
Not yet; nonetheless, depending on the funding we will be able to obtain, we have planned to make a series of surveys on the new scheduled experimentations. Anyhow, in the bugs previously tested (tenebrio molitor and hermetia illucens) and reared on vegetal substrates, the levels of the heavy metals and of the pesticide analyzed were all well below the legal limits.
From a purely scientific point of view, are edible insects the best alternative source of protein we can benefit from or are there other foods which are not part of our “traditional” diet that might be as valid?
Actually, as we also highlighted during the Cnr Conference held at Expo Milano, other foods such as microalgae and jellyfish can be considered good protein sources and have in common the fact that their production has a significantly lower environmental impact than traditional foods.
Might ISPA contribute with specialized operators, its expertise and equipment for the drafting of protocols ensuring the safety of products based on edible insects?
ISPA, as well as any other Cnr institution, are not organizations involved in monitoring the security of the food that end up on our plates, but thanks to the scientific findings resulting from our research we will surely be able to provide useful guidance to the entire scientific community and to other organizations such as EFSA and the European Union for the drawing up of food safety protocols on these new food types.
Do you think that providing the Italian production of edible insects with a National Quality Label which further guarantees consumers on origin and security of the products could be conceived as a plus also commercially speaking?
The insects that are currently on the market come largely from the Asian continent and therefore do not follow the European production standards. To produce these insects in Italy, or at least within the EU, following the European safety regulations, represents not only an economic opportunity for our farmers but will also contribute enormously to reassure consumers in order to bring them closer to these foods. Moreover, in my opinion, the Italian creativity together with our great culinary tradition could surely provide a plus to these foods in order to further stimulate their consumption.
You participated at Expo bringing forward other types of novel food. Is the market of these novel food ready to be launched and developed or will additional research and scientific studies be needed before the consumer will be able to buy novel food?
As for microalgae one can already find in various stores, in Italy too, some food items (i.e. pasta and biscuits) based on microalgae and particularly on algae spirulina, which are highly appreciated for example by vegetarians. Differently, as for jellyfish and insects the legislation in Italy does not allow their sale, but in Countries such as the Netherlands and Belgium, characterized by the presence of foreign communities (i.e. Congolese and Chinese communities) used to consume them, it is not difficult to find them in supermarkets or ethnic shops. In my opinion, since our society is increasingly becoming multiethnic, people will be shortly always more inclined to buy and eat them, if the the Italian Legislation will allow it.
And now our usual final question: have you ever tried to eat insects? If so, what was the feeling? If not, would you try them, if you had the opportunity?
Yes, I had the chance to eat on two separate occasions some biscuits containing cricket flour and soldier fly flour (hermetia illucens) and some backed muffins decorated on the top with full crickets. As for the cookies I would say the if I had not been told that they contained insect-based flour I wouldn’t even have noticed it; as a matter of fact their flavor was neither particular, nor unpleasant, nor inviting, perhaps only the biscuits with hermetia illucens were slightly spicy. Instead the full cricket on the muffin aroused my curiosity and its taste reminded me a little of shrimps. I recommend it to everyone, without any prejudice, to make at least one attempt!