Eating bugs hasn’t been shown to cause cancer or lung disease

21 March 2023
What was claimed

Studies show one third of insects raised to be eaten cause disease in humans.

Our verdict

A study found parasites that could potentially cause disease in humans in insects from one third of the farms they sampled. But a large number of the farms used unhygienic practices, and the research didn’t assess if eating the insects could or would actually cause disease.

What was claimed

Chitin, found in insects, is indigestible and proven to cause health issues like respiratory disease and cancer.

Our verdict

Chitin can’t be digested by humans, but this does not mean it is a health risk. We can find no evidence in humans of a risk of respiratory problems or cancer from eating insects or chitin itself.

A video posted on Facebook makes some false and misleading claims about the supposed health risks of eating bugs.

The video, which seems to have originated on TikTok, has an in-frame caption throughout saying “studies show eating bugs is dangerous”, but the studies it refers to say nothing of the sort.

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Are bugs dangerous to eat?

We are first shown the summary of one study, with the claim in a voiceover that it shows “one third of all insects studied were found to be pathogenic to humans”. 

But this isn’t quite correct. 

The researchers took samples of live insects from 300 insect farms, and identified parasites that were potentially pathogenic (disease-causing) for humans in 91 of them. 

However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that consuming insects from these farms would actually be pathogenic to humans, as the researchers haven’t quantified the amount of parasite present nor done any clinical testing.

The researchers noted poor practices at many of the farms, such as feeding the insects mouldy food and faeces. We don’t know how common these practices are outside of the 300 farms sampled, nor whether they contributed to the presence of parasites in the samples.

It is also possible for meat to contain disease-causing parasites, but this problem can be significantly reduced with preventative farming practices

What about chitin?

The video then goes on to talk about chitin in insects, claiming this specifically is dangerous.

As the video says, chitin is a type of carbohydrate found in most insects (but not in mammals). It is also found in the shells of crustaceans like crabs and lobsters, and in mushrooms.

However, the video also says about chitin: “We cannot digest it, and it is known to cause several health issues with humans who consume it, including respiratory issues and the accelerated growth of cancer cells.”

It’s true that we can’t digest chitin, but this is not necessarily a problem. For example, fibre is found in most plant foods, and we don’t digest it either. It passes through our intestines without being broken down. Yet increasing consumption of fibre is generally recommended for health.

The video includes images of a paper which it claims shows a link between chitin and cancer. The article is actually an exploration of research on links between levels of chitinase (an enzyme mammals have that breaks down chitin) and inflammation, and potential links between this inflammation and cancer. The article makes no link between consumption of chitin and inflammation or disease.

Full Fact was unable to find any research looking at health impacts of chitin consumption in humans, including cancer or lung disease specifically. To say that it is known to cause disease in humans is not justified by the evidence we have.

The 0.1%

Health claims aside, the video starts by claiming “the powerful 0.1% want us lower castes to eat bugs, while they save the best for themselves” because “they want us all to get sick and die”.

It’s not clear exactly who this refers to. We have previously covered false claims about international organisations like the World Economic Forum (WEF) and the United Nations, and their stance on eating insects. 

The Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) does say that insects are a potential source of food for both humans and livestock, citing environmental advantages over current animal farming, as does the WEF. But the FAO has also published an extensive report into possible health effects, calling for further research on the issue of parasites among other issues.

Many people around the world eat insects and other invertebrates already, and have done so for millennia.


Image courtesy of Julia Filirovska

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