Insects are a promising alternative protein source. One of the bottlenecks in applying insects in food is the fast darkening initiated during grinding. Besides enzymatic browning, non-enzymatic factors can cause off-colour formation, which differs between species. This study investigates the impact of iron, phenoloxidase, and polyphenols on off-colour formation in insect larvae. Hermetia illucens showed a blackish colour, whereas Tenebrio molitor turned brown and Alphitobius diaperinus remained the lightest. This off-colour formation appeared correlated with the iron content in the larvae, which was 61 ± 9.71, 54 ± 1.72 and 221 ± 6.07 mg/kg dw for T. molitor, A. diaperinus and H. illucens, respectively. In model systems, the formation of iron-L-3,4-dihydroxyphenylalanine (L-DOPA) bis- and tris-complexes were evidenced by direct injection into ESI-TOF-MS, based on their charges combined with iron isotope patterns. The reversibility of the binding of iron to phenolics, and thereby loss of blackening, was confirmed by EDTA addition. Besides complex formation, oxidation of L-DOPA by redox reactions with iron occurred mainly at low pH, whereas auto-oxidation of L-DOPA mainly occurred at pH 10. Tyrosinase (i.e. phenoloxidase) activity did not change complex formation. The similarity in off-colour formation between the model system and insects indicated an important role for iron-phenolic complexation in blackening.