What Are Novel Foods and How Are They Approved?
Yellow mealworms were the first insect approved for human consumption in the EU. As a ‘novel food’, mealworms had to pass through different applications and processes to be sold in European markets. Insects are only one type of ‘novel food’, but how are novel foods exactly classified in the EU? And what processes ensure that they are safe for consumption?
What is a ‘novel’ food?
While novel foods are often thought of in the context of the unusual, unconventional, or innovative, they can also simply be foods that are relatively new to the market.1 The European Commission describes a novel food as any food that was not consumed to a significant degree by people in the EU before 15 May 1997 - when the first regulation on novel foods came into force.2
Foods could also be considered novel for a number of less obvious reasons - like being produced using new technology, foods with a new or modified molecular structure, or even previously overlooked ingredients of the food we eat regularly. And while some novel foods can be sold unconditionally, others can be used only in the context they have been approved in; for instance, using only a specific production technique. In fact, many familiar household names you’ve probably seen or eaten like quinoa, macadamia nuts, and mango peel are all on the list of EU approved novel foods.3
Wakame, a kind of Japanese dried seaweed, is an approved novel food in the EU. Eaten for centuries in Asia, wakame is now often found globally at Asian cuisine restaurants.
For those of you who are curious, the EU Novel Food Catalogue provides information on which foods have already been approved, as well as all of those awaiting approval.3
How are novel foods certified?
Broadly, the Commission requires novel foods to satisfy the following criteria to be approved:1
1. Safe for consumers
2. Properly labelled to prevent consumers from being misled
3. If intended to replace another food, should not be nutritionally inferior to the original food
Ambrosia, or annual ragweed, is not an approved novel food in the EU. While it is primarily used for ornamental purposes, it is used in some cultures as a medicinal herb, but can be toxic under the right circumstances.
Applying to be a novel food
Currently, all procedures related to novel food approval in the EU are guided by regulations. If a food business wishes to place a novel food on the market, it must first request authorisation from the European Commission. The process starts with an application where the Commission requests detailed information about the production process, history of safe use, and nutritional and toxicological information, among others.4 Then, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) carries out a risk assessment and indicates whether the product might be safe for consumption. This is followed by a legislative process that finally concludes whether or not the novel food can be approved for sale to European Consumers. The point being - approving a novel food is no simple task.
International foods in the EU
Foods that have been traditionally consumed in foreign countries can be authorised faster if the applicant can provide proof of safe consumption.4 However, in general, the authorisation procedure for novel foods is still a fairly long and slow one that requires cooperation between several stakeholders. This is necessary to ensure that consumers are protected from any possible adverse effects of these foods.
The leaves of the famously noxious Gingko tree, found commonly in Asia, are an approved novel food in the EU.
The role of novel foods in a sustainable food system
It would not be an exaggeration to say that innovation, and by extension novel foods, are fundamental to building a food system that is sustainable, secure, and safe. Novel foods can offer health benefits, potentially use fewer natural resources, and even be cheaper to produce compared to traditional counterparts. They could play an important role in ensuring that the nutritional needs of the growing population are met while reducing the environmental impact of food production.
Regulation keeping up with the pace of innovation
This sentiment seems to be mirrored by the European Commission which has been consistently improving the novel food regulation in recent years. After updating the application system in 2018, the process became simpler, faster, and more transparent than any of its predecessors. After the new regulation came into force, the Commission has received more applications for novel foodstuffs than it did in the previous 14 years combined.5
Mycellium powder, the powdered form of inter-fungal connectivity networks, is not an approved novel food in the EU. Recently, mycellium and other fungus-related products have been promoted by health gurus as an alternative dietary supplement.
However, in aspiring to promote innovation, regulators and the food industry must tread a tightrope. As novel foods make their way to our shelves, changing food safety needs, sustainability, and consumer wishes must remain central considerations.
Do you know if you have any novel food stocked in your pantry? Tell us in the comments below!