Most people don’t like to think about it, but the truth is that we’ve all eaten bugs at some point in our lives. Bugs and insect parts frequently make their way into processed foods and even the freshest fruits and vegetables. So how many of these creepy crawlers have taken up residence in your stomach throughout your lifetime? Let’s take a look at the facts and figures to find out.
Bugs are everywhere
Insects are among the most abundant creatures on earth. Scientists estimate there are some 200 million insects for every human on the planet. With numbers like that, it’s impossible to avoid encountering them pretty much everywhere we go. No matter how clean we try to keep our homes and workplaces, some intrepid insects always find a way inside.
Contamination happens during food production
We try to grow, harvest, process, and package foods in as sanitary conditions as possible. However, when you’re dealing with tons of agricultural products each day, inadvertent contamination is inevitable. Bits of bugs often end up blended right in with the food before it reaches our plates.
Bugs can’t be entirely removed from produce
Fruits and vegetables grow outdoors exposed to all sorts of insects. Some bugs live and feed right inside the produce. Washing and scrubbing can remove some pests, but not every nook and cranny can be cleansed. So you’ll often end up eating bugs that made your apples, broccoli, and berries home.
Food processing equipment contains insect parts
The machinery used to harvest and handle food often contains tiny hiding spots where insects can remain trapped. The constant cleaning, scraping, and sanitizing can’t always fully remove every tiny leg or wing fragment from equipment surfaces. Over time these minuscule insect pieces mix into the food supply.
Regulations allow for “unavoidable defects”
Government food safety agencies recognize that a certain level of contamination is unavoidable. So they allow small amounts of “natural or unavoidable defects in foods for human use” as stated in the FDA’s Defect Levels Handbook. This includes things like rodent hairs, insect parts, and mold.
FDA allowances for bugs in food
The FDA’s Food Defect Action Levels outline the maximum amounts of bug parts considered “unavoidable” in different foods:
- Canned citrus juices – 5 or more whole insects per 250 ml
- Fresh fruit juices – 1 or more maggots per 250 ml
- Canned mushrooms – over 20 maggots of any size per 100 grams
- Tomato juice – 10 or more fly eggs per 100 grams
- Canned sweet corn – 2 or more caterpillars per 100 grams
- Peanut butter – 30 or more insect fragments per 100 grams
- Macaroni and noodle products – 225 insect fragments or more per 225 grams
So regulatory agencies acknowledge bugs in food are a given and allow certain levels. This gives you an idea of just how commonly insects creep into foods.
Bugs consumed by the average person each year
Now that we know insects frequently defy even our best efforts to keep them out of food, how many are we each eating on an annual basis? Entomologists have crunched the numbers on typical bug contamination rates to estimate the number of bugs consumed per person annually.
Some experts have calculated that most people eat around 2 pounds of insects each year. Other estimates range from 1 to 2 pounds of bugs consumed by the average American annually. Some international estimates are lower at around .5 to 1 pound per person. Variations probably depend on differences in agriculture methods, food processing, and regulations between countries. But all the estimates indicate people eat a non-trivial amount of bugs.
Breakdown by bug type
Looking closer at the types of insects people eat most often:
- Beetles – around 40%
- Caterpillars – around 17%
- Flies – around 12%
- Moths – around 10%
- Aphids – around 10%
- Other insects – around 11%
Beetles account for nearly half of the bugs ingested. Tiny beetle eggs, larvae, and parts can find their way into flours, sugars, cereals, baked goods, and more.
Mostly small fly parts and eggs
When you eat a fly, it’s usually just a tiny part like a leg or antenna rather than the whole insect. With moths and butterflies, it’s often just microscopic scales that flake off their wings. So you’re more likely to consume portions of bugs rather than whole ones.
Bugs eaten at different life stages
Insects get into foods at various points in their life cycles. The stage of development influences the amount and type of contamination.
Tiny eggs from moths, beetles, and flies commonly end up in foods. A female can lay hundreds of nearly microscopic eggs at a time, making it easy for them to spread. Since eggs are so small, they can be hard to notice and remove from foods.
Larvae from various insects are present in a number of foods. Maggots from flies are often found in fruits, vegetables, and grains. Caterpillars worm their way into many plants. Grain weevils and bean beetles invade stored products. Larvae crawling around plants, storage facilities, and processing equipment spread easily.
Pupae are the transitional stage when larvae are transforming into adult insects. They end up in food when sanitation methods fail to remove them from produce or machinery. Coccoons protecting developing pupae can be challenging to eliminate.
Although full-grown insects are larger and more visible than eggs or larvae, they still manage to elude detection. Fragmented body parts are more common than whole insects. But some adult insects infesting fields or food processing areas avoid removal and get into the final food.
Which foods contain the most bugs?
Some types of foods are more prone to insect contamination based on where and how they’re produced. Here are some of the top bug-containing foods.
Stored grains, flours, and cereals
Pantry staples like rice, wheat, oats, flour, and cereals offer irresistible breeding grounds for grain beetles, weevils, and moths. Larvae burrow into the grains to feed then leave traces behind. These pantry pests can introduce insect parts into home cooking as well as mass production.
Dried beans, peas, and lentils
Like grains, dried legumes are vulnerable to infestation. Weevils and bean beetles often move in, leaving insect fragments and larvae. Unless the beans get aggressively sifted and cleaned, some hitchhiking bugs remain.
Nuts, chocolate, and sweets
Moth larvae consider nuts the perfect place to grow and thrive. Chocolate, especially dark varieties, naturally contain insect bits. Honey and other sweeteners also attract bugs. Even with safe storage methods, elimination of every single egg or body part proves challenging.
Fruits and vegetables
All types of produce grown outdoors face bug exposure. Some like cabbage and broccoli have folds where insects hide. Berries, citrus, tomatoes, apples, and more can harbor mites, aphids, or fruit fly eggs. Washing reduces but can’t guarantee 100% removal.
|Stored grains and flours||Grain beetles, weevils, moth larvae|
|Dried beans and lentils||Bean weevils, beetles|
|Nuts and sweets||Moth larvae, aphids, mites|
|Fruits and vegetables||Fruit flies, caterpillars, aphids|
Average bugs eaten by region
The types and amounts of insects consumed vary by part of the world. Climate, agriculture methods, food processing procedures, and regulations all contribute to the differences.
Americans eat around 1-2 pounds of bugs each year on average. Beetles make up about 40% while flies, moths, aphids, and caterpillars each make up about 10-15%. The typical American ingests a lot of small fly parts, moth scales, and beetle eggs regularly present in grains and flours.
Europeans eat 0.5-1 pound of insects annually on average. Beetles account for roughly 15% and moths around 10%. But aphids, midges, and thrips appear more often in European foods, each contributing about 5-10%. Differing agricultural and processing methods influence the variability.
Estimates suggest the average person in Asia consumes 300-500 grams of insects annually. Beetles make up 30-40% while moths account for about 15%. Asia has higher rates of flies, ants, and cockroaches appearing in foods. In parts of the region, some insects are intentionally eaten as part of traditional diets.
Insects have always been an integral part of diets in Africa. Around 500-900 grams are eaten deliberately per person annually in parts of the continent. But additional accidental bug intake likely occurs, with beetles, caterpillars, and moths being common. Edwards mealworms, mopane worms, and termites are frequently consumed insects.
|Region||Avg Annual Bugs Eaten||Common Types|
|United States||1-2 lbs||Beetles, flies, moths|
|Europe||0.5-1 lb||Beetles, moths, aphids|
|Asia||300-500 g||Beetles, moths, flies, ants|
|Africa||500-900 g +||Beetles, caterpillars, moths|
Health impacts of eating bugs
For most people, ingesting small amounts of insects isn’t a health hazard. But bugs can cause issues for some.
Anyone with a shellfish allergy may also react to insects. This is because both contain similar proteins called tropomyosins. Getting hives or having trouble breathing after eating bugs could signal an allergy.
Eating insects could expose you to bacteria like salmonella and E. coli if the bugs fed on contaminated plants or carried the pathogens from unsanitary conditions. Proper cooking kills these microbes.
Some people experience digestive upset like nausea or diarrhea after eating insects. Chitin in an insect’s shell can aggravate the stomach and intestines for sensitive individuals.
Certain insects like blister beetles contain a toxin called cantharidin that causes skin blisters and burning of the mouth and throat. But amounts in food are usually low.
So while bug parts in food generally don’t harm most people, some individuals may need to be cautious. Those with insect allergies or sensitive digestion should check food labels for disclosed insect ingredients to avoid a reaction.
Avoiding extra bugs in your diet
If you want to cut back on bug intake, you can take some proactive steps:
Buy dried goods in packages rather than bulk bins
Packaged grains, beans, cereals, baking mixes, and powders have less exposure to pantry pests than open bulk bins. The small amount of bugs trapped during packaging is unavoidable.
Rinse fresh produce thoroughly under water
Give fruits and veggies a good rinse before eating. This can wash away some clinging eggs, larvae, and adults. Don’t rely on produce washes – plain water works just as well if you scrub.
Inspect and clean pantries regularly
Keep shelves, containers, bags, and boxes as clean and sealed as possible to limit insect access. Get rid of any contaminated items you spot.
Freeze then store grains and flours
Put new bags of rice, oats, wheat, etc into the freezer for a few days to kill any eggs and larvae hidden inside. Then transfer to airtight containers.
Avoid raw agricultural samples
Turn down offers to taste berries right off the bush or nibble grains straight from the field. Choosing washed produce minimizes vivacious voyagers.
Being a bit choosy helps decrease insect extras, but realistically you can’t eliminate every single bug. The harmless ones add a little bonus protein!
It’s impossible to avoid consuming a few bugs here and there, but a little extra protein and fiber never hurt anyone! Knowing how insects infiltrate our food supply provides insight into improving agricultural and sanitary practices. While average bug consumption varies by location, Americans eat about 1-2 pounds per year. Overall insects rank pretty low on the list of food contaminants to worry about for your health. But individuals with allergies or sensitivities should take some careful precautions. As for the rest of us, just be thankful for regulations that enforce clean food and limit extreme insect invasions. We may be eating bugs, but not as many as we would without modern food safety practices!