Insects have come closer to becoming a staple in European diets after the EU's food safety agency deemed the yellow mealworm safe for human consumption.

The European Food Safety Authority said on Wednesday that based on an application from French insect farmer Micronutris — the first European company focused on insects for human consumption — there were no safety concerns for dried yellow mealworm. The creature is the larval form of the mealworm beetle.

However, it warned that protein from the mealworms might cause reactions in people with allergies to crustaceans and dust mites and that allergens from the larvae’s own feed might end up in products.

Although about 2bn people in more than 130 countries already eat insects, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, they are not widely consumed in the west.

Insect larvae are already used in Europe and elsewhere for chicken and fish feed as well as pet food and fertiliser, and regulatory approval could spur investment into foods for the dinner table. Analysts at Barclays, the UK bank, have estimated that the nascent insect protein market globally could be worth about $8bn by 2030 in terms of sales, up from less than $1bn now.

Ermolaos Ververis, scientific officer at the European Food Safety Authority, said on Wednesday: “This first EFSA risk-assessment of an insect as novel food can pave the way for the first EU-wide approval.”

The decision is the first step towards gaining full approval for the product. The industry must also seek labelling and marketing authorisations.

The announcement would boost insect start-ups such as France’s Ynsect, Protix of the Netherlands and AgriProtein of South Africa, and provide incentives for new businesses and investments, say analysts.

Antoine Hubert, founder of Ynsect, said having a clear regulatory regime was important for further growth in Europe: “It is key for innovation and development. It's a competitive advantage [for the region].”

In 2017 the European Commission approved the use of insects in fish feed, spurring development of a new market. The use of insects for human consumption has been largely unregulated in the EU but in 2018 Brussels set up a regulatory framework for the sector. Meanwhile, individual restaurants and food companies have offered consumers products on a limited scale.

With the global population set to reach almost 10bn by 2050, pushing up food production needs, insects are seen as a potentially good protein source, rich in vitamins and minerals. Unlike fish and livestock, their production puts little strain on the environment and they are seen as a sustainable food source.

“There are clear environmental and economic benefits if you substitute traditional sources of animal protein with those that require less feed, produce less waste and result in fewer greenhouse gas emissions,” said Mario Mazzocchi, professor at the University of Bologna.

The question is whether new products such as insect protein powder in food like burgers and sport shakes would be accepted by European consumers. Giovanni Sogari, a social and consumer researcher at the University of Parma, said social and cultural experiences made the thought of eating insects repellent for some. However, “with time and exposure such attitudes can change”, he added.