Exploring insects as a sustainable, alternative food source

Wednesday, November 30, 2022 - 12:00 PM

Professor Andreas Lopata, of the National Allergy Centre of Excellence Food Allergy Stream Advisory Group, shares his research into insect proteins and how they may support our food future.

Insects may soon be approved for food consumption in Singapore.

In a media release on 16 October, the Singapore Food Agency announced that it is seeking feedback from the industry on the production and import of insects as food or animal feed. As the agency reviews these regulations, this could pave the way for people to consume species such as crickets, beetles, moths and bees. These can be consumed directly or made into products such as chips and other fried insect snacks or protein bars.

Professor Andreas Lopata — Professor in Molecular Allergy at the College of Public Health, Medical & Veterinary Sciences and the Tropical Futures Institute (TFI) at James Cook University (JCU) — is researching the potential allergens in cricket and other insects.

After all, it’s important to be mindful of the food safety aspects in terms of allergens as we move towards human consumption of insects.

Professor Andreas Lopata

One of Professor Lopata’s key findings is that people who are allergic to shellfish might also be allergic to insects. “We know that insects and crustaceans are very closely related. They have a lot of little legs, you know. You would love to eat a prawn, but you wouldn’t eat a cockroach, even though they are very closely related when it comes to their protein contents.”

This means that people who are allergic shrimp, mussels, oysters or any other type of shellfish, are highly likely to have an adverse reaction to products made from insect proteins or products that contain traces of it.

As such, products that contain insect proteins should be appropriately labelled, and people with existing shellfish allergies (which Professor Lopata points out is only about five per cent of people in the world) should avoid them.

Professor Lopata is also interested in finding out if there are different ways to reduce the allergens in insect products. For example, he suggests that insects at different stages of growth may have vastly different levels of allergenicity. “There are only preliminary indications of this, but understanding the allergenicity of insects at different stages would also help to identify the best insects that are highly nutritious and easy to grow in large quantities on an industrial scale.”

Professor Lopata has also discovered that different preparation methods may also impact the allergenicity of insect proteins. He explains, “Some research has shown for other products that if you use high-pressure processing or heating, you can hydrolyse these proteins to smaller peptides — into smaller fragments — and then they often lose allergenicity,”

Overall, discoveries like Professor Lopata’s research help to support a deeper understanding of insect proteins and how they can provide a sustainable, alternative food source.

As the global population grows, we need to find alternatives to traditional meat consumption and warm up to the idea of eating insects as an option. There are already a number of edible insect companies, and — according to past research — two billion people in more than 113 countries around the world already eat insects.

When the notion of eating insects becomes even more widely accepted, we may access to a bigger variety of insect product offerings.

Professor Lopata will be attending the Agri-food Tech Expo Asia 2022 on 26-28 October alongside other TFI and JCU researchers, where they will discuss and explore the future of sustainable and safe food security.

This article first appeared on the James Cook University Singapore website

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