Bug Blog

When Eating Insects Goes Wrong

Edible insects are being hailed as a superfood by enthusiasts who claim that bugs provide the healthiest source of animal protein available. Westerners typically acquire their protein and essential amino acids from livestock, and the international effort to transition the western diet from livestock-protein to insect-protein has been slow-going to say the least. While insect protein does not, unlike livestock protein, significantly contribute to atherosclerosis, edible insects are not always as harmless as many people make them out to be. Not only can some commonly consumed insects induce illness in some circumstances, but there are numerous reports from all over the world describing people who have died in response to consuming insects. Despite the existence of these reports, the consumption of insects is generally understood to be quite safe.

In some regions of the world, blister beetles are consumed for their purported aphrodisiac effects, but numerous reports exist that describe the fatal or near fatal consequences of consuming these bugs. In South Africa, a child recently died as a result of consuming the Phymateus Leprosus species of grasshopper despite the fact that grasshoppers are commonly consumed and recognized as safe to eat within the country. And a few decades ago in Kenya, five people died from botulism as a result of consuming improperly stored termites. Three people in Namibia also acquired a fatal case of botulism after consuming caterpillars.

It is of the utmost importance that edible insects undergo the proper amount of processing, handling, and drying before being consumed, as a recent study conducted in Botswana makes clear. This study found that a field of commercially produced mopane worms contained dangerous levels of potentially deadly aflatoxins. Several caterpillar species that are consumed regularly in many parts of the world must be cooked before consumption, as cooking burns off their dangerous hairs. If these caterpillars are consumed before the hairs are removed, a condition known as lepidopterism results. This condition results in dermatitis, algogenic reactions, allergenicity and sometimes death.

Have you ever consumed insects in an exotic part of the world?