Interview with Prof. Cristoforo Incorvaia, Allergology specialist at the Centro Specialistico G. Pini/CTO of Milan
Products made from edible insects have recently appeared on the market; which could be the consumers’ risks related to a potential allergic reaction?
Obviously the problem is quite complex because there are many types of edible insects. We can divide them into categories. The greatest danger, and there is plenty of literature about it, is the one of the ingestion of poisons (for example Hymenoptera). There have been cases where people allergic to bee venom have had allergy attacks after eating honey that contained bee venom traces. But we can exclude that people will feed on bees and wasps. However, there are other Hymenoptera like ants that are widely consumed, even if in some cases they contain a similar poison to that of bees.
As for grasshoppers and crickets I will mention the case of a boy allergic to pets whose parents had bought a snake to be kept in the terrarium. This guy had allergic reactions after receiving the reptile, then it turned out that was allergic to the grasshoppers on which he was feeding the reptile. Therefore there is always an hypothetical risk.
Cockroaches represent an important source of allergies – especially asthma and rhinitis – in America, it is a real plague.
What allergens can be found in foods based on insects?
They are numerous.
Also the chironomid larvae, a species of flies used by fishermen as bait, have caused several cases of asthmatic and allergic attacks.
Can the consumption of edible insects be compared to that of shellfish, if we focus on the potential onset of allergies?
Of course, and we know exactly which is the substance responsible for it: a protein called tropomyosin, which is involved in the muscular process of these living beings and which is also responsible for the reactions among the people allergic to dust mites, whose main allergens are anyway different.
The same protein is to be found in insects and is widespread almost in all arthropods.
In Italy it is not possible to market products made from edible insects yet. Do you think that it would be necessary to activate a specific research on relations between their consumption and the related potential allergies? Or could we simply borrow the necessary knowledge from other fields?
To carry out an effective screening on the percentage of potential individuals allergic to edible insects, it would be enough to ask them if they are allergic to dust mites, shellfish, mollusks or slugs. Moreover, it could be very useful to know if they have ever had any insect sting reactions.
In the 50s when Birches were imported in Italy, where they didn’t exist, if only they had first enquired and found out that in Scandinavia Birches are the main cause of pollen allergies, maybe they wouldn’t have imported them. More recently something similar happened with another type of Japanese coniferous tree used in many areas of our Country for reafforestation.
Therefore, in order to face the issue of extending the human diet to edible insects, one should take into account those who have an allergenic potential than those who do not have it.
So the we have in the field of allergies caused by shellfish, mollusks, insects that sting, dust mites and arthropods in fact already provide a scientific basis that allows not to invest millions of euros to start specific research on edible insects?
I would also like to add that today through blood tests one can also determine the level of antibodies to antitropomiosina, that means that one can have an absolute precise diagnosis, if one is already allergic to other substances, as I said before.
Therefore we should not fear that insects consumption will lead to an increase in the number of people with allergies in the population? Can we say that there will be no “Birch effect” and that it can be expected that the percentage of people who will have allergic reactions by eating insects will be comparable to that of whoever has allergic symptoms by eating shellfish?
Of course, we don’t need to fear expansions of allergic reactions linked to the consumption of edible insects. People at risk, as always, are the ones who already know they have other allergies and for this reason they must pay more attention.