A reader wrote to us a while ago asking about a worm he found in his food (chicken chow mein, more precisely, although this probably isn’t relevant). He was wondering what kind of harm the worm could cause him, although it isn’t clear if he is worried about the health consequences of eating worms, or if he is wondering if the worm’s mere presence in his chow mein could cause him problems. We presume he was primarily concerned with the direct consumption of the worm, so our primary focus will be whether or not it is safe to eat worms, but we will also touch on the health repercussions of eating food in which worms are found.
First, we should mention that the reader wrote to us seeking what essentially amounts to medical advice – has my health been compromised by the worm in my food? – which, as non-medical professionals, we cannot provide. If he experienced any health problems after eating the chow mein, then he needs medical attention, not general information about eating worms, which is all we can provide in the present article. Nothing we write should be construed as medical advice to our reader, nor should anything be taken as a medical justification to consume (or not consume) worms.
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As we pointed out in our article about eating insects in the Philippines, entomophagy (the human consumption of insects as food) is widely practiced around the world. So, although eating any insect or worm may strike many as strange and disturbing, this attitude is by no means universally shared. It is worth noting, as we did in the article about the Philippines, that people generally eat insects or larvae, and even though many larvae are called “worms” (e.g., mealworms, which are commonly eaten), they are not technically worms. Thus, in comparison with insects, little is written about eating worms. There is plenty of data to suggest that eating certain types of insects and larvae is safe – millions of people are able to do it every day – but this same data doesn’t exist for worms.
However, regardless of whether we are talking about worms or insects, there are some basic things to keep in mind when evaluating the safety of consuming either. First, even if a certain type of worm by itself is completely safe, one must be wary of what is on or in it. Worms don’t live in the most sanitary places, and they also may consume dead organic matter with lots of bacteria. So, again, a worm might be safe to eat by itself, but all the pathogens it carries with it might make it dangerous. Cooking a worm might kill any harmful bacteria, which is precisely what happens when meat is cooked, so the fact that the reader found his worm in a cooked dish might make it less dangerous (if it is dangerous at all). Frying up a worm (like frying up insects and larvae, which is common) would certainly seem to make it safer for human consumption. Second, you must always be careful what you put in your body because of food allergies; you simply don’t know how your body will react to things it has never had. In extreme cases, an insect, larvae, or worm could simply be poisonous, and obviously this is going to cause problems if it is ingested. However, something wouldn’t necessarily have to be poisonous to cause problems. When answering a question about eating Phoenix Worms, we mentioned that these creatures produce leachate (basically a liquid residue) that contains enzymes that are too acidic for other worms, which can cause problems when certain types of worms are in the same compost bins as Phoenix Worms (which are actually larvae). We don’t know if these enzymes are harmful to any humans, but it just goes to show you how many unknown factors there are when it comes to eating something that you don’t normally eat, like a worm in chow mein.
All that said, we don’t think our reader needs to panic or anything. He didn’t seem to eat the worm, and even if he did it very well could simply serve as a small bit of innocuous protein and nothing else. It is of course possible that the worm brought bacteria into the dish, and it is possible that these bacteria could cause illness, but our bodies are constantly encountering, battling, and defeating bacteria, so it is not like every meeting with bacteria is harmful. So, we don’t think our reader necessarily needs to worry, although if he is experiencing health problems, he should go to doctor. As for the larger question of whether it is safe to eat worms, the answer is “it depends,” but in any case caution should be exercised.
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