Nitrosamines in food raise a health concern

Consumer exposure to nitrosamines, compounds that can form in food during its preparation and processing, raises a health concern says the EFSA.

This is the finding of European Food Safety Authority’s assessment on the public health risk related to the presence of nitrosamines in food. Ten nitrosamines found in food are carcinogenic (can cause cancer) and genotoxic (may damage DNA).

EFSA consulted external stakeholders on its draft opinion and the numerous comments received were considered when finalising it.

Potential health risks 

EFSA carried out its assessment by evaluating the potential harm caused by nitrosamines to humans and animals and assessing consumer exposure.

Dr. Dieter Schrenk, Chair of the Panel on Contaminants in the Food Chain, said: “Our assessment concludes that for all age groups across the EU population, the level of exposure to nitrosamines in food raises a health concern.”

Dr Schrenk added: “Based on animal studies, we considered the incidence of liver tumours in rodents as the most critical health effect”.

“To ensure a high level of consumer protection, we created a worst-case scenario for our risk assessment. We assumed that all nitrosamines found in food had the same potential to cause cancer in humans as the most harmful nitrosamine, although that is unlikely.”

Which foods contain nitrosamines?

Nitrosamines have been found in different types of foodstuffs such as cured meat products, processed fish, cocoa, beer and other alcoholic beverages. The most important food group contributing to nitrosamines exposure is meat and meat products.

Nitrosamines may also be present in other foods including processed vegetables, cereals, milk and dairy products, or fermented, pickled and spiced foods.

Currently, there are some knowledge gaps about the presence of nitrosamines in specific food categories. Balancing the diet with a wider variety of foods could help consumers to reduce their intake of nitrosamines.

What happens next?

EFSA’s opinion will be shared with the European Commission, which will discuss with national authorities what risk management measures are needed.

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