Crunching down on food safety

Insects are thought to be one of the best future options for feeding the world’s growing population, but how do you make sure what ends up on your plate is safe to eat?

Researchers from James Cook University are aiming to find out just that, as they work with the Australian Government’s National Measurement Institute, Australia (NMI) to identify allergens that could be harmful to humans and pets.

Team leader and head of the Australian Institute of Tropical Health and Medicine’s Molecular Allergy Research Laboratory at JCU Professor Andreas Lopata said little was known about the allergens contained in alternative food proteins on the market that were derived from insects such as crickets, black soldier flies, and mealworms.

“One of those products is a protein powder made from crickets. It’s registered as a food source worldwide,” Prof Lopata said.

“You can also get muesli bars that are fortified with 10 to 20 per cent cricket protein powder, and it’s incorporated in cookies and pasta.

“They’re very healthy and nutritious so our research into products like this with the NMI is focusing into the possible allergen contents.

“We want to know how can we measure these allergens and how can we quantify them.”

Prof Lopata said his team is looking into cross-reactivity, a phenomenon which occurs when proteins in one substance are similar to those found in another.

“One example of cross-reactivity is potentially people with the house dust mite allergy also reacting to allergens found in these insect-based foods,” Prof Lopata said.

“House dust mite allergy is much more common than any food allergy. About 30 per cent of the world’s population has allergies to the house dust mite and this prevalence is increasing.

“Initial data from our lab suggests that some of these house dust mite allergens do cross-react to insects, and this could potentially mean that people with a house dust mite allergy who eat a food product containing insect proteins might experience an allergic reaction.

“But I should stress that this concept is still in the research phase.”

Another important allergy link has been found between proteins present in crickets as well as shellfish, the findings of which will be published this year, Prof Lopata said.

The information gathered by JCU and the NMI is being used by the alternative food industry to develop more accurate allergy test kits than those currently being used, which will ensure foods with known allergens are labelled appropriately.

“The insect-based food industry has been very co-operative,” Prof Lopata said.

“Insects are a very good and nutritious food product. It’s probably part of the alternative food future to feed billions of people as the world’s population grows.

“Insect food companies in Australia are very supportive of our research and want to produce food which is safe for people, including those with allergies.”

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