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Written By

Tianna Killoran

College

College of Public Health, Medical and Veterinary Sciences

Publish Date

13 October 2022

There’s a bug in your food

It might seem like one of the latest food trends, but did you know people in Australia and around the world have been eating insects for millennia? JCU’s Professor Andreas Lopata shares his research into how we can create a safe and sustainable future with insect proteins on our plates.

JCU Professor Andreas Lopata is a molecular biologist with a curiosity for creepy crawlies. After studying insect physiology during his Master’s and immunology as part of his PhD, researching the potential allergens in cricket and other insect proteins has seen Andreas’s research come full circle.

Andreas and his team have spent several years investigating shellfish allergies, which he says are a complex but life-saving field of research. “Most of our research focuses on which allergens are important in fish and shellfish, which is much more complex than egg allergy or peanut allergy because there are so many different species. Each one seems to have slightly different allergens and the diagnostic test can sometimes give a false positive,” he says. “With one in ten children having some type of food allergy, this research supports a major drive for early detection and best management of allergies in Australia.”

After presenting a workshop at the Good Food Institute in the United States, Andreas says his eyes were opened to the desperate need to build a more sustainable future for our food systems. “We need more research into proteins from alternative food sources and insects are a great opportunity. Historically, insects have been eaten in many countries throughout the world, including in Australia where there are dozens of species of insects that are known to have been eaten by various Aboriginal groups.”

But how can we make sure these are safe for people to eat? While Andreas says the handling and processing of these foods are safely regulated, we still need further research into the potential allergens in insect proteins. “The initial thought for our research project was supporting the production of food that is safe and sustainable. Producing insects for human consumption is far easier here in Australia compared to Europe, but we’re still looking into their food safety aspects in terms of allergens.”

JCU PhD student Shay Karnaneedi smiling and sitting at a lab bench with Professor Andreas Lopata standing behind him.
JCU Professor Andreas Lopata holding up a petri dish with dried crickets and using tweezers to pick them up.
Left: JCU PhD candidate Shay Karnaneedi and Professor Andreas Lopata who found that people with shellfish allergies may also be allergic to certain types of insect proteins. Right: Professor Andreas Lopata researches insect protein allergens in the lab. Supplied by Shay Karnaneedi.

Crustaceans & crickets: It’s all the same

Working in the Molecular Allergy Research Laboratory (MARL), Andreas collaborates with a team of researchers including PhD student Shay Karnaneedi and Honours student Emily Jerry to investigate insect protein allergens.

One of the big findings from Andreas’s research is that people who are allergic to shellfish might also be allergic to insect proteins.

“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,” he says.

“The research conducted by our PhD student Shay Karnaneedi has found so far that there is a potential for people with an existing shellfish allergy to also be allergic to some insects,” Andreas says. “So, if you are allergic to shrimp, mussels, oysters or any other type of shellfish, there is a strong possibility you will also react to any product made from insect proteins or containing a certain amount of it.”

But Andreas says the potential for these allergies is not bad news for cricket cuisine. “This is not necessarily a problem for these food products, but so long as they are labeled that they should not be consumed by people with existing shellfish allergies, which in the world markets is only about five percent of people,” he says.

Working with the CSIRO, Andreas wants to find out whether there are different ways we can reduce the allergens in these insect products for people with shellfish allergies

Some of Andreas’s preliminary research indicates that insects at different stages of growth may have different levels of allergenicity. Crickets, for example, are in adult form, while mealworms are actually the intermediate stage of darkling beetles. “There seems to be a big difference in allergenicity in these insects depending on their stage. 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,” Andreas says.

Andreas’s research has also shown that different ways of preparing insect proteins may also impact their allergenicity. “Some research has shown for other products that if you use high-pressure processing or heating, you can hydrolyze these proteins to smaller peptides — into smaller fragments — and then they often lose allergenicity,” he says.

Three members of the JCU MARL lab smililng and sitting at the lab bench.
Cooked crickets and vegetables on a white plate.
Left: Shay Karnaneedi, Professor Andreas Lopata and Emily Jerry, an Honours student in the Molecular Allergy Research Laboratory (MARL). Supplied by Shay Karnaneedi. Right: A dish prepared with crickets just before consumption. Supplied by Dr Thimo Ruethers.

Plating up policy for insect proteins

Andreas says that understanding insect proteins is the key to our food future, where backing up our understanding of these foods with scientific research can support future policy.

“A lot of businesses in this industry are taking precautionary steps — it is very good to see them adding labelling on their products about shellfish allergies. But we don’t actually have any specific guidelines for different insect species in Australia,” he says.

Currently, a lot of the insect proteins on the market are in the form of crushed and dried crickets, mealworms and black soldier flies. “If we have better research and scientific data that is either confirming or refuting statements about insect products, it will make it much better for policy making and decision making to unlock new insect start-ups with native insect species,” Andreas says.

Importantly, developing these guidelines will support broader standards for food labelling and understanding allergies when we might find other bugs on our plates in the next few years.

In the future, Andreas’s research will enable Australia to implement a policy for a wider variety of insect proteins for human consumption. “There are real opportunities for us here to identify a wider variety of different native species that are the most efficient and sustainable and develop First Nations-owned initiatives,” he says. “We in Australia don’t have to necessarily rely solely on crickets, mealworms or black soldier flies like they have in Europe because they have developed this technology to work in indoor growing and small spaces. So, there are absolutely opportunities for other insects in our environment.”

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