Am I allergic to crickets if I am allergic to shellfish?
Great question, and one to be taken seriously. Usually humans have fear surrounding mystery, and the goal of this post is to create smart skeptics and eliminate fear of our own immune systems. The immune system is a great mystery itself. This is a field in medicine that is so complex we have yet to ground a full understanding of how it works, so it is no wonder many people would rather avoid certain foods completely than risk a reaction.
I had an amazing opportunity in my graduate education at the National University of Natural Medicine to take a class on food intolerances, allergies, aversion, toxicity and sensitivities. During that class I created this visual (Click visual to view) to help people understand the differences between the five. This immunologic study helped me to understand the basics concerning immune modulated responses to food. The most imminent and scary reaction we all think of when we think of food reactions is an IgE mediated response (think peanuts). This is a food allergy that can result reactions ranging from an itchy throat, on up to the narrowing of an airway and inability to breathe. Scary, yes… the latter is also known as anaphylaxis. These folks often carry epinephrine around when they may be at risk of accidentally eating something with hidden peanuts (or whatever their specific allergy trigger may be). Anaphylactic reactions mediated by IgE antibodies can happen from bee stings, other environmental offenders and plenty of other foods.
Whenever an allergic reaction is taking place, this is the effect of a protein. As much as science has enlightened us up until this point, proteins are the elements of food the immune system finds offensive.
Another food group people often have troubles with are shellfish. This is a complicated matter in and of it’s own because there are a multitude of proteins in each crustacean, so it is hard to isolate one protein to figure out which protein it is that is truly causing a reaction. To make things even more complicated, each type of shellfish has multiple proteins. For instance, a lobster may have some proteins in common with a shrimp, but many other proteins as well. In shrimp, scientists have found tropomyosin to be an offender that binds to IgE antibodies. This New York Times article is a great explanation on the topic, and more accessible than some of the scientific studies out there:
To understand the seafood/shellfish/arthropod interactions that can occur in the body, here is a more scientific review with some helpful visuals:
So…crickets are arthropods. Shellfish are arthropods. A little refresher on how the animal classification system works: Domain-kingdom-phylum-class-order-family-genus-species. Arthropods are a very large phylum, arguably one of the most successful phylum of the animal kingdom. More than 800,000 species of arthropods exist, including members millipedes, centipedes, spiders, scorpions, lobsters and crabs. For more on this particular topic you can check this resource out:
Hopefully the information provided shows you how broad the classification of phylum-arthropod truly is. Now envision how many proteins make up the arthropod phylum. Surely being allergic to one member, shrimp, does not logically mean you are allergic to every single member of the arthropod phylum. Now…why would I put a cautionary warning on my cricket spices, if there wasn’t a strong reason to do so?
The FDA does not yet have a thorough system in place to ensure regulatory measures by the astringent standards of the “western world”. Up until now, the FDA regulates insects as an unavoidable inclusion of what inevitably wanders into human crops. You may have seen a caterpillar inside of a raspberry? Or maybe a beetle in your quinoa every now and again? Insects have also been intentionally included in food stuffs beyond recognition of the general public for quite some time. The most recent example of this application in the media might be that of the dactylopius coccus that when crushed creates a red cochineal dye that Starbucks was using to color it’s Frappuccinos red. More on that here:
In my humblest of opinions, proper parameters for regulating and studying the use of crickets as human food will not be in place until the industry makes enough money for the FDA to deem it worth the efforts to try to manage. Of course, more research and regulation benefit everyone involved in the industry, bringing legitimacy to its reputation as a safe foodstuff. Luckily for the smart and sustainably motivated insect eaters of the western world, I believe this time is right around the corner as millions of dollars annually are already being made off crickets by companies like Exo, Chapul, Thailand Unique, Cowboy Crickets, Cricket Flours, Chirps, Bitty Foods, Crick Nutrition, Entomo Farms, Aspire Foods and of course our very own Orchestra Provisions.
For now, the FDA is telling people to be wary of crickets if you have an allergy to shellfish, because they are in the same phylum as crustaceans. I hope after having read this post, you know that this is a warning to be taken both seriously, and with a grain of salt. As of now, it is good to consult with your physician, or make sure you have Benadryl near if you have a shellfish allergy and plan on branching out to try this smart and time-tested protein source. With that being said, many people who have shellfish allergies have been fine consuming cricket protein. As with all of our unique immune considerations, proceed at your own risk. Who knows, once science is funded to study the proteins that make up crickets, I may be able to take the allergy warning off my labeling, but for now I will leave it… JUST IN CASE!