Imagine attending a breakfast event at your workplace, and to your surprise, the menu reads: "mealworm omelets with crispy cricket salad".
Do you pass up free breakfast because it sounds disgusting? Are you scared about the health risks? Or, would you scarf it down without second thought?
Find out what employees at HSBC Hong Kong were asked to do during their Sustainable Breakfast Speaker Series here.
Can we eat mealworms?
Yes, yes yes yes you can eat mealworms. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), which is a department of the European Union which handles food safety concerns, and evaluates risks aligned with the food chain has proposed that mealworms are high in nutrient content, especially protein, fat and fiber which could be a good source of food to maintain health and food sustainability for the future generations. Wow, was that a mouthful.
Do mealworms cause diseases?
Insects are almost famous for being the disgusting little critters that live in our world. They are wriggly, move at an exceptionally fast pace and have an almost alien-like number of legs (haha, it's just three pairs). Their abnormal appearance is one of the reasons why people find them so disgusting and are unwilling to consume them.
From a tender age, ideas were put into our heads about how flies transmit diseases, beetles bite, and bees sting. These messages became stamped in our memory, reinforcing the idea that insects are a threat to our society. In that process, insects have been put into the same group as bacteria, viruses & parasites for it is assumed that insects can transmit diseases and cause illnesses too.
Alongside the EFSA & their science-backed studies, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations has also stated that there are no known cases of transmission of diseases or parasitoids to humans from the consumption of insects (on the condition that they were handled under sanitary conditions like any other food).
Psst, we've developed an Insects & Diseases lesson in the Hive Explorer Sustainability Curriculum to teach students more about foodborne illnesses, food handling and transmission of diseases - learn more here.
Can Insects cause allergies?
An allergy is an immune response to a foreign substance - like pollen, cat fur or food like peanuts or shellfish that are harmless to most people.
If you are allergic to crustaceans, shellfish or dust mites, you may also be allergic to insects - like mealworms.
Before anyone gets alarmed and tosses the mealies out the window, let us explain this to you a little bit. Mealworms, shrimp, lobsters, prawns, muscles, oysters and similar critters contain the same allergens (foreign substance that can cause an immune reaction) - two common ones include tropomyosin and arginine kinase. These are simply proteins which happen to trigger an allergic reaction in some individuals.
The topic of insects and allergies still requires further researching, but as a precautionary principle, we recommend that people who are allergic to crustaceans, shellfish and dust mites should refrain from eating insects. This concept is called cross-reactivity, where different antigens (substance that induces the immune system) appear similar to the immune system, albeit minor differences.
Should you include mealworms in your diet?If disease transmission is your concern or if you find insects gross - Science is here to remind you that these factors are not something you need to worry about. Several governing bodies have deemed mealworms safe, and with good reason - their nutty, crunchy texture is the perfect addition to a host of delicious dishes.
Look - that's me trying my first mealworms back in October 2020
Mealworms are a novel food, which are defined as a food that have not been consumed to a significant degree by humans before 1997 - which means we're constantly learning more and more about them!