Food chemicals may have harmful ‘cocktail’ effect


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Low levels of chemicals in food may be harmless in isolation - but researchers suggest they could have an additive effect
Low levels of chemicals in food may be harmless in isolation - but researchers suggest they could have an additive effect

Related tags Risk

Risk assessment of food chemicals usually fails to take into account their effects when combined with other compounds – and these ‘chemical cocktails’ may be harmful to health, says new research from Denmark.

The National Food Institute at the Technical University of Denmark has just completed a four-year research project examining the safety of food chemicals in combination, and says they may have an additive effect. This means low levels of substances like pesticides and heavy metals may be more risky to health than predicted when assessing individual components.

“It’s rather the exception than the rule that cocktail effects are taken in to account when assessing chemical safety,”​ said Professor Anne Marie Vinggaard, head of research group at the National Food Institute. “It should be implemented in risk assessment and the biggest question is how we should do it.”

She told FoodNavigator that the research group had developed a tool to help risk assessors take into account combined effects, but added that more research was needed. The tool includes a computer program and step-by-step procedure to help calculate cocktail effects – and it also includes tools to gather more information about potential risk.

Total chemical pressure

The researchers also assessed Danish dietary exposure to chemicals, and found that Danes’ exposure to pesticides through foods was relatively limited, but exposure to substances such as lead, cadmium, PCBs and dioxins needed to be reduced.

In addition, they said the endocrine disrupting effects of chemicals had not been adequately studied, but where knowledge was available – for phthalates and fluorinated chemicals, for example – results showed a need to reduce exposure.

“We think that there are many indications now that total chemical pressure that humans are exposed to can influence our health, especially for the highest exposure groups,”​ Vinggaard said.

Among potential causes for concern, she claimed that the tolerable limit set by EFSA for bisphenol A exposure from food packaging was “too high”.

“Chemical cocktail effects are a societal challenge, which challenges the way we assess and regulate the use of chemicals, both inside Denmark and within Europe,”​ she said.

The organisation has also set out some recommendations to reduce risk, including advice for parents to avoid feeding children rice cakes.

“There is no need to give rice cakes to children because in general we get too much arsenic,” ​she said. “You can’t avoid it, but this is something you can do to reduce exposure.”

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