Can we consume food that contains unclean insects?


There is an ongoing debate, especially in parts of Europe, regarding the consumption of insects or food which contains ingredients of unclean insects.

An article in Report 24 of January 16, 2023, points out:

“Looking at the ingredient list should be part of grocery shopping. EU citizens who do not want to ingest insects unknowingly should be particularly careful: the EU Commission has already approved four types of insects in different processing forms as ‘edible insects’. The most recent approval was on January 5: From now on, after mealworms, grasshoppers and crickets, the grain mold beetle (“Getreideschimmelkaefer”) can also be used as an ingredient in foods such as bread, soups, pasta, snacks, peanut butter and chocolate products…”

 The website of the European Commission, Representation in Germany, provides the following information on the issue of insects in food:

 Four insects are approved as food in the European Union. The dried yellow mealworm was the first insect to receive approval in May 2021. Most recently, the Commission authorized ‘partially defatted powder from Acheta domesticus (domestic cricket)’ for the EU market by implementing regulation 2023/5. Foods that contain insects must state this clearly and understandably in their list of ingredients. The indication that allergic reactions are possible in people with an allergy to crustaceans and molluscs as well as to house dust mites must be included in the immediate vicinity of the list of ingredients. When it comes to approval, the EU rules on novel foods apply…

 “So far, the European Commission has granted four approvals for insects as food: the mealworm, the locust, the so-called buffalo worm [our annotation:  buffalo worms are the larvae of the glossy grain mold beetle] – as well as in February 2022 for the domestic cricket (Acheta domesticus) and in January 2023 for partially defatted powder from the domestic cricket…

 “It must be clearly labeled that a food contains an insect (with Latin and German names) and also in what form (e.g. as a powder). Appropriate allergy information is also mandatory.”

We also addressed the consumption of locusts and crickets in our Q&A.

With this information, what should our stance be regarding the consumption of food containing unclean insects? In our Q&A about gelatin products, we stated:

“… an orthodox rabbi has certified gelatin as kosher, although [it] is extracted from the skins of beef, calf and pork. This certification was based on the belief of many that during the manufacture of gelatin the composition of the original material undergoes a complete change or metamorphosis, that is, its original source becomes unidentifiable. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not consider gelatin to be a meat product…”

However, there might be a distinction between gelatin products and certain products containing unclean insects.

Gelatin is derived from skin, bones, tendons and cartilage. It is obtained through a large, complex manufacturing process of hydrolysis. During hydrolysis, chemical compounds are broken down into smaller molecules by absorbing water; i.e., they are also purified. In regard to the production of “insect meal,” the process is much simpler, by just rearing, freezing, drying and grinding the insects. In this way, all the components from the body of the unclean insect are extracted as flour. In other words, the whole insect, or most of it, without a substantial or meaningful chemical alteration, is being consumed.

On the other hand, at what point do unclean insects become a food source? When they are specifically harvested to be included in various foods, they contain the very elements that should be avoided. Uncountable life forms eventually die and decompose in the earth, and clean, edible plants grow from that. Cows and other edible animals invariably consume unclean insects. However, their food source is not what we consume in any direct way. The milk of a cow doesn’t come to us with an ingredient list—rather, the cow converts its food to milk.

We feel that, generally, food that is labeled with unclean ingredients, which do not go through an “alteration” process, unlike gelatin products, should be avoided. That is, when we can, we should avoid them—looking at labels when available and asking when possible, just as we inquire at Mexican restaurants whether the beans are made with lard (pig fat); or as we inquire in Thai, Chinese and Vietnamese restaurants whether their dishes are made with oyster sauce.

However, to really know exactly what is in the food we eat is hard to tell. When it comes to foods and drinks that say “may contain” certain ingredients, it isn’t very clear and again poses the question, how do we really know what’s in there and how far do we want to go asking for an ingredient list wherever we eat? We need to take a balanced approach (Matthew 23:24 comes to mind), and ultimately, the decision is up to us individually whether, and in what circumstances, to partake of the products, keeping in mind that we must never eat or drink or do anything that violates our conscience if we feel that we would be compromising with the Word of God. However, having done our part, we leave the rest to God who can also protect us if we eat something inadvertently which happens to be unclean.

We should also understand that in such a case, we do not sin or become “unclean” in the eyes of God (compare Mark 7:15-19; note that the last clause in verse 19 should be translated: “…it is eliminated into the sewer which purifies all foods.” Compare also Matthew 15:17-20).

An interesting example of viewing this issue is by briefly addressing carmine (E120) and shellac (E904). In an article of the BBC, dated April 28, 2018, it was stated: “If you are horrified by the thought of eating insects, the bad news is that you have probably done so many, many times. This is because one of the most widely used red food colourings – carmine – is made from crushed up bugs… A staple of the global food industry, carmine is added to everything from yoghurts and ice creams, to fruit pies, soft drinks, cupcakes and donuts.”

Carmine is produced by heat-drying cochineal beetles until they are completely dehydrated, and then they are subsequently crushed into powder. The powder is then boiled in water which serves to extract carminic acid which is present in the powdered insects. Use of added chemicals causes the colouring and animal matters present in the liquid to precipitate into a red pigment. Carmines (E120) are used worldwide as natural food coloring agents of animal origin, with a widespread application. Carmines are known to cause allergic reactions.

 Carminic acid, typically 17–24% of dried insects’ weight, can be extracted from the body and eggs, then mixed with aluminum or calcium salts to make carmine dye, also known as cochineal. Some feel it is non-kosher and suggest looking at the list of ingredients. It might say “natural red four”, “crimson lake” or just E120, to give carmine its European Union food additive classification number. It has also been pointed out that food-grade cochineal dye is put through many filters to remove insect parts.

E 904, called shellac, is partially derived from the female lac bug on trees in the forests of India and Thailand. However, Jewish rabbis give numerous reasons why it is kosher and permitted. Firstly, it is not actually from the bug but it is extracted from the trees, similar to the honey in a bee. Another reason is, the shellac is an inedible secreted substance which emanates from the insect. Shellac cannot be digested and it is therefore not considered food, but compared with eating a rock.

It appears to us that due to the nature and the process involved, products containing carmine and shellac could be treated similar to gelatin products.

In our Q&A on gelatin products, we concluded:

“Each Christian has to make the decision as to whether, and in what circumstances, to partake of the products as described herein. While it is true that the kingdom of God is not eating or drinking (Romans 14:17), and that ‘nothing that enters a man from the outside … can defile him’ (Mark 7:15), the prohibition of the consumption of unclean flesh is still clearly valid…

‘We must all strive to live our lives correctly administering the Biblical patterns revealed to us. As Jesus Christ so clearly explained in applying God’s Word, the religious leaders of His time had so burdened the people that the Way of God was stifled in long lists of ‘do’s’ and ‘don’ts’. As we in the Church of God strive for a right balance, let us all seek God’s continual guidance so that we may do only those things, which are pleasing in His sight.”

Lead Writer: Norbert Link, with input from the ministry in the USA, Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia and Germany

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