Eating insects is nothing new in Thailand. But even there, many find the idea of eating bugs hard to digest.

Eating insects in Europe
What is kosher, what is halal?

The European Union's gradual approval of the addition of insects to food is not without controversy. Many Jews and Muslims also have a problem with the idea, owing to their various dietary restrictions

Insects in food? For those keen on experimenting, this might seem like a good idea. Insects are already found dried, frozen or in powder form in various products. In the EU, insects have been successively approved for consumption since June 2021: originally, this applied to yellow mealworms, house cricket and migratory locust. At the beginning of 2023, the European Commission also granted its approval to the maggot-like larvae of lesser mealworms, as well as partially defatted powder from the house cricket.

People who eat a vegan or vegetarian diet, have allergies or follow dietary rules for other reasons therefore need to read the contents on the packaging carefully – and hope that everything is really on the label. Officially, if a food contains insect parts, it must be clearly labelled, and also in what form.

Religion is also a factor: those wishing to comply with the respective dietary laws in Judaism and Islam are required to observe a number of prohibitions and rules. The rules are derived from the Torah and interpretations or from the Koran and the actions of the Prophet Muhammad.

Judaism imposes kashrut, i.e. certain requirements for the consumption of food. That which complies with the rules is called kosher. For example, dairy and meat products must be kept and prepared separately, while there are also clean and unclean animals – the latter include not only pigs, but worms and insects too.

Dietary dictates preclude the serving of insects

Various insects are pictured on a plate at Take Noko cafe in Tokyo, Japan, 21 July 2023 (image: REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon)
Insects on the menu: although many people in Europe are aware of the benefits of eating insects, most would not want to eat any. Tastings could help to overcome this inner revulsion, recommends Germany's Federal Centre for Nutrition

According to the Orthodox Rabbinical Conference of Germany (ORD), eating food containing insects contravenes Jewish dietary dictates. "Apart from the fact that this nutritional zeitgeist phenomenon can hardly be considered appetising, the consumption of worms, not to mention all other insects is strictly forbidden by the Torah," Rabbis Avichai Apel (Frankfurt), Zsolt Balla (Leipzig) and Yehuda Pushkin (Stuttgart) emphasise on behalf of the ORD board.

The ban on eating insects and worms is so strict that eating a single insect frequently constitutes a simultaneous violation of several prohibitions in the Torah. The only exception is the consumption of locusts, which is allowed by the Torah – "but plays no role in Judaism's menus and would fail in the context of food production due to the strict requirements pertaining to kosher food," the rabbis said.

"In short, insects and worms are not kosher and have no place in food," Apel, Balla and Pushkin emphasise. They are therefore calling for "visible warnings" on products containing insects and worms. Their Orthodox rabbi colleague Avraham Radbil from Konstanz pointed out in the "Jüdische Allgemeine" at the beginning of February that in Yemeni communities in particular, eating certain types of locusts was "part of everyday life". But Radbil also emphasises that it is by no means advisable to eat insects.

Maggots and worms are strictly "haram" in Islam

Insect snacks in Asia (image: Bernd Bieder / Imagebroker/ picture alliance)
Special labelling is required for foods containing insects: "Foods containing insects must be clearly and comprehensibly labelled as such in their list of ingredients. The Latin and German names must be mentioned. In addition, the form in which the insect was used, for example, powder or paste, must be stated", emphasised a press release published by the German government on 8 February 2023

Most Islamic scholars take a similarly strict view. They, too, restrict in sect consumption in principle to locusts, which Muhammad is said to have expressly permitted and to have eaten himself during his military campaigns. Since they belong to the cricket family, they are generally halal, i.e. permitted, explains Ranya Nassiba of the Central Council of Muslims in Germany.

Only the Malikite school of law, which is widespread in North Africa, accepts more insect species as food. Prerequisite for consumption is that the insects are dead. Maggots and worms, however, are strictly haram in Islam, i.e. forbidden, because they are invertebrates.

But there is hope for the proponents of insects and similar creatures in food. Islamic law recognises the phenomenon of istihala, or transformation. "It ensures that a ritually impure substance is transformed – usually by organic processes – from haram to halal," says Mouhanad Khorchide, head of the Centre for Islamic Theology at Munster University.

Examples include the production of wine vinegar from wine or gelatine from pork, the consumption of both is forbidden to Muslims. If istihala lifts the core of the prohibition, such as the intoxicating effect of alcohol or the consumption of pork, which is considered impure, Muslims are allowed to consume the correspondingly derived products. Protein powder originating from insects thus has a chance of ending up in foodstuffs bearing the coveted halal seal. (KNA)

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