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Contaminated food: The health risk is mostly underestimated


Risks from contaminants in food are often unknown to consumers
Many people see a high risk of contaminating food with harmful substances, but they are often not aware of the individual contaminants as such, according to a recent survey by the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR).

"Almost 60 percent of the German population see undesirable substances in food as a high or very high health risk," reports the BfR of the survey results. Mercury compounds and dioxins form the best-known of these undesirable substances, which are scientifically referred to as contaminants, the Federal Institute continues. On the other hand, most of the respondents are not aware of natural contaminants such as arsenic in rice or pyrrolizidine alkaloids (PA) in honey or tea. The results of the study were published in the "Bundesgesundheitsblatt".

What are contaminants in food?
BfR explains that contaminants are undesirable substances that get into food unintentionally. These can occur naturally in the environment, arise during the processing of raw materials into food or are released into the environment through human activities and thus enter the food chain, reports the Federal Institute. The contaminants are undesirable because they can potentially affect health.

Health risk assessment asked
A total of 1,001 people were interviewed in the representative population survey using computer-assisted telephone interviews on the subject of contaminants in food, according to the BfR. It became clear that most of the respondents classify contaminants as a high health risk, "although only a minority spontaneously lists contaminants in the sense of the scientific-legal definition as examples of undesirable substances in food."

Many respondents name substances that are not contaminants
BfR experts report that more than half of the respondents referred to contaminants as substances that are not considered to be spontaneous. A good 30 percent of those surveyed cited food additives as examples of undesirable substances in food, with flavor enhancers (12.4%) and preservatives and colors (9% and 8.8%) being the most frequently mentioned.

Risk is often not known
However, the test subjects were well aware of some contaminants when asked specifically. Above all, the mercury in fish (named by 78 percent of those surveyed) and the dioxin in eggs (named by 70 percent). Awareness of acrylamide in French fries or toasted bread was still quite high (mentioned by 44 percent). But other contaminants such as pyrrolizidine alkaloids in tea or honey (mentioned by 13 percent) and benzopyrene in grilled meat (mentioned by 18 percent) were not known to most of the respondents. Only 26 percent of those surveyed also recognized the possible arsenic contamination in rice and rice products as a health risk.

According to the BfR, the comparatively new consumer protection topics are only known to a minority of the respondents. Only 36 percent of those who have heard of PA would see a significant health risk with these substances. At arsenic, this applies to 57 percent of those who have already heard of possible contamination of rice products with this semimetal.

Women are more aware of the topic
According to the survey results, the general attitude to contaminants in food and the assessment of possible health risks also differ according to population groups. For example, men would rate the risks of undesirable substances in grilled meat lower than women and generally deal less frequently with the topic of undesirable substances in food in their everyday lives than female respondents. The younger respondents felt that significantly more people (around 41 percent of the 14 to 29 year olds) felt poorly informed about undesirable substances in food than the older respondents (15 percent of the over 60 year olds).

Reach less well-informed groups of people
"People feel most threatened by synthetic substances and heavy metals" and "adequate risk communication about contaminants should take this subjective risk perception into account", summarizes BfR President Professor Dr. Dr. Andreas Hensel. According to the BfR, respondents in particular, whose level of information is already comparatively high, are interested in additional information on possible protective measures, legal regulations and affected product groups. However, it is precisely those who have little knowledge that must be reached. "When it comes to communicating health risks, the main challenge is to make less well-informed groups aware of the issue," reports the BfR. (fp)

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