Novel foods that divide

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The fourth species of edible insect has recently been authorized for human consumption. Just as the FDA’s openness to synthetic meat is recent. Yet novel foods and food innovations do not always convince, especially in Italy.

Edible insects: fourth approval

There is no three without four. Last January EFSA approved the larva of the beetle Alphitobius diaperinus, called the lesser mealworm, for human consumption. The approval follows those of the mealworm, the locust and the house cricket, which occurred between June 2021 and February 2022. The animal can therefore now be marketed in all EU countries in dried, frozen, powdered or pasta. EFSA also communicated that there are 8 other evaluation requests underway. Human consumption of insects could therefore further expand in the near future.

Lesser mealworm has been shown to meet safety standards for human consumption. Furthermore, there is no definitive evidence of the presence of specific allergens. However, given the possibility of allergic reactions in people sensitive to crustaceans, dust mites and molluscs and also given the possible presence of allergens coming from the feed consumed by the insect, this new novel food requires adequate labelling. And precisely because of its allergenic power, it is not recommended for young people under 18.

Nonetheless, the consumption of insects as a protein source is supported by the FAO and the European Commission. In addition to the various environmental benefits of insect farming when compared to that of the animals from which we commonly obtain food proteins, there are in fact few economic repercussions that could disadvantage other livestock production. The edible insect sector is a niche sector in Europe and at the moment everything suggests that it will remain so for a long time. According to the EU, therefore, there are no reasons not to authorize these novel foods and the choice must be left in the hands of consumers.

Italian perplexity

In our country, however, it is precisely the consumers who do not seem convinced. According to a study conducted by Coldiretti and Istituto Ixè, in fact, 54% of Italians are against the consumption of insects, only 16% are in favor, while 30% of those interviewed said they were indifferent or preferred not to answer.

Furthermore, Coldiretti itself demonstrates that it has many doubts regarding the introduction of insects into the diet of Italians. In addition to reiterating the distance of similar novel foods from our culture and culinary tradition, in fact, the organization raises several health doubts relating to both the production methods and the traceability of the products. Nonetheless, their origin is finally worrying, especially in cases where it concerns non-European countries known for frequent food alarms, such as China, Vietnam and Thailand.

A recent study published in PLOS ONE also confirms Italian doubts regarding insect-based novel foods. The research focuses on the mealworm, with the aim of discovering to what extent the populations of countries culturally more or less close to entomophagy are in favor of consuming insects or foods containing them. The study was conducted in China, Belgium, Italy, Mexico and the United States, confirming the role of our country at the rear in the acceptance of insects as food.

In fact, Italy was found to be the country with the poorest attitude towards insects, both consumed as is and processed. Among the possible explanations hypothesized for this phenomenon, the study reports the cultural distance from this type of diet, but also more practical issues: the little exposure to insect-based foods, their limited availability and the high price.

Growing meat

Producing food from animal cells suitably grown in the laboratory. So-called synthetic meat is a rather extreme application of the novel food concept. To produce this product we start from animal stem cells, taken from the muscle of adult organisms or from embryos. At this point, muscle tissue is generated or regenerated through tissue engineering techniques which involve the use of a bioreactor for cell proliferation and differentiation. To obtain the finished product, a culture medium and a support that allows the growth of the cells are also needed, which can be edible or removed at the end of the process.

The experiments have already involved many animal species, not only cattle and pigs, but also poultry and fish. And in 2022 the FDA showed the first real signs of openness towards this innovation. The US body has in fact given the first positive opinions to the chickens of the Upside Foods company, raised in the laboratory starting from cell cultures. Not only. The FDA also issued a note in November 2022 encouraging the development of cultured meat production processes by other companies as well. Despite not yet having authorized any synthetic meat products, the US direction therefore seems quite clear.

The reason for such an openness lies in the potential of synthetic meat. Its production is in fact highly controllable and paves the way for improvements and customizations. Addition of vitamins, regulation of fat levels, total absence of antibiotics and unwanted substances from feed: the possibilities for such an innovation are many. In addition to the scientific front, the environmentalist opinion is also positive. The production of synthetic meat is in fact cruelty free and does not require land consumption comparable to that of livestock farms.

Synthetic meat in the storm

The safety level of this innovative product does not seem to differ from that of classic animal products. Furthermore, if approved for human consumption, synthetic meat would necessarily have to meet specific standards. Nonetheless, safety is one of the arguments underlying the criticisms leveled at it. The possibility that, in the wake of the US opening, EFSA could see the arrival of requests for evaluation of the inclusion of synthetic meat products in novel foods raises many concerns, especially in our country.

The possibility that the industrial process with which synthetic meat is obtained could hide health dangers has pushed many associations, including Coldiretti, to take sides against this innovation. Among the reasons for this opposition there is also the remoteness of synthetic meat from our eating habits and its unlikely acceptance by consumers. The association also raises doubts about the nutritional value of this type of product and underlines the possibility that the synthetic meat model overturns the logic of our livestock system, damaging the prestige of Made in Italy food production.

The protests resulted in a collection of signatures and a law decree against this innovation. Italy is therefore the first country in the world to ban the production of any food product derived from cell cultures or tissues of vertebrate animals. Production but not import, protected by European rules on the free circulation of goods and services. If the EU were to approve a synthetic meat-based food produced outside national borders, it would be impossible to ban its distribution in our country.