Whether in chocolate, rice or baby food – traces of mineral oil are found in food again and again. These substances can get into our food through a variety of sources. The impurities still pose a health risk.
As reported by the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) in a recent communication (PDF), the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has updated its risk assessment of mineral oil hydrocarbons in food. Experts continue to regard some mineral oil residues in food as a health problem.
Contamination from packaging
Mineral oil components can get into our food in various ways: This is foreseeable if they are found, for example, in approved food additives or additives for food processing.
Food contamination from agricultural machinery, unsuitable transport or processing methods and accumulations along the food chain can also occur.
In addition, paper or cardboard packaging made using recycled fibers may contain residues of mineral oils.
Printed newsprint is also used as a raw material for recycling, and mineral oils are present in most conventionally used newsprint inks. So far, these cannot be sufficiently removed in the recycling process and can thus end up in food packaging made of recycled cardboard.
MOSH detected in human organs
The detected mineral oil mixtures consist of complex mixtures of saturated hydrocarbons (Mineral Oil Saturated Hydrocarbons, MOSH) and aromatic hydrocarbons (Mineral Oil Aromatic Hydrocarbons, MOAH).
It is known that MOSH containing up to around 45 carbon atoms can be absorbed by the human body. They have been detected in some organs such as the liver and spleen as well as in adipose tissue.
In addition, animal studies had shown that some MOSH caused deposits and inflammation in the liver in a certain strain of rats. The relevance of this finding for humans was unclear for a long time.
After evaluating new data, the EFSA has now come to the conclusion in its reassessment that the observed effects occur specifically in this rat strain and are not relevant for humans.
Current intake level is not a cause for concern
Apart from very high doses, the experts at EFSA have not found any harmful effects of MOSH on humans. However, the data is incomplete. Above all, long-term studies in animals and further data on MOSH levels in human organs after (life)long intake of mineral oil are missing.
The health risk assessment of the EFSA is based on the effect of the accumulation of MOSH in organs and tissues, because an accumulation of exogenous substances is generally undesirable and possible (previously unknown) toxicological effects are most likely to be expected from the accumulation of MOSH.
EFSA concludes that the current dietary intake of MOSH in the European population is not a cause for concern. This is also a result of efforts by authorities and industry in recent years to reduce the migration of mineral oil into food.
This is particularly problematic for infants and young children
However, the EFSA still considers the intake of aromatic mineral oil hydrocarbons (MOAH) to be too high, especially for infants and small children.
The fraction with three or more aromatic rings is particularly relevant for the assessment of the MOAH levels in food because this fraction can contain mutagenic and carcinogenic substances.
The BfR shares the conclusions of the EFSA and emphasizes that the contamination of food with mineral oil components is generally undesirable.
Better practices in agricultural production, transportation, storage and processing of food can help reduce inputs of mineral oil components. (ad)