Eating insects — safely

Food safety concerns and considerations when it comes to edible insects.

A cicada on a leaf.
Photo: Pixabay/Parlansky.

Perhaps it is the idea of being more sustainable with protein sources, or simply the summer abundance of the babbling cicadas, but edible insects have been getting a lot of attention these days, leaving many people wondering if adding insects to their diet is right for them.

The concept of edible insects is not a new one; in fact, The Library of Congress tells us that humans have been eating “insects for tens of thousands of years,” and are currently a regular part of about two billion people’s meals. Some of the most popular edible insects includes beetles, caterpillars, bees, wasps, ants, grasshoppers, locusts, crickets and cicadas. Despite their history and popularity, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), there are some food safety concerns when considering edible insects:

  • Allergenic: There is a potential to develop serious allergic reactions to edible insects. For example, people who suffer from seafood allergies should avoid edible insects.
  • Biological: Many different kinds of bacteria that are known to make people sick have been found in insects including E. coli and Campylobacter. In addition to these bacteria, viruses, parasites, and fungi are also possible forms of biological contamination.
  • Chemical: Because many insects are eaten whole, they are especially vulnerable to chemical contamination. Pesticides, toxic metals and dioxins are some chemicals that are of concern with insect consumption.
  • Physical: Insects can be a choking hazard due to their hard parts which include stingers, wings, rostrum (sharp mouthparts) and spines.

In the United States, insect regulation as it relates to food is the responsibility of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Presently the FDA treats insects as filth or defects in food. While there have been requests for the FDA to regulate insects as food, there are currently no regulations specifically regarding edible insects in the United States.

If you are interested in introducing edible insects into your diet, the FAO suggests making your purchases from reputable suppliers. Regardless of what you decide to eat, here are some food safety basics from the Food Safety and Inspection Service to keep in mind:

  • Clean: Always wash anything that comes into contact with raw food, including hands, utensils and surfaces.
  • Separate: Use different cutting boards when preparing meat, vegetables and ready-to eat-food. Don’t cross-contaminate.
  • Cook: Always cook food thoroughly and check with a kitchen thermometer.
  • Chill: Refrigerate leftovers within one to two hours.

For more information on food safety, visit MSU Extension's Safe Food & Water website.

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