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Low-level formaldehyde in gelling agents not a problem, says EFSA

By staff reporter , 25-Jan-2007

The presence of low-level formaldehyde in gelling agents like carrageenans and alginates does not pose a threat to human health, the European Food Standards Authority (EFSA) has reported.

The Scientific Panel on Food Additives, Flavourings, Processing Aids and Materials in Contact with Food examined both recent and past evaluations of the preservative and concluded that there is no evidence to indicate that formaldehyde is carcinogenic by the oral route.

Despite being phased out by some manufacturers, formaldehyde is still used as a preservative (antimicrobial agent) in the production of carrageenan and alginates to prevent unravelling of the polymers in the raw material. It also acts as an antioxidant and bleaching agent during the manufacturing of alginates.

Other manufacturers have requested that a maximum residue level be introduced of up to 50 mg/kg of formaldehyde in alginic acid and its salts.

No evaluation of a residue limit for formaldehyde in these additives has ever been performed, state EFSA, and therefore no residue limit is currently included in legislation for purity criteria of these additives.

While estimated dietary exposure to residual formaldehyde in alginates and carrageenan is reported to be between 400 and 70 times lower that the Tolerable Daily Intake (TDI) value of 150 micrograms/kg body weight set by the World Health Organisation (WHO) for drinking water, the panel went for a 'worst case scenario' on formaldehyde intake.

The panel assumed that an adult could eat 1 kg of food, like ice cream and ready to eat dairy dessert cream, per day containing 2 per cent of any gelling agent containing 50 mg formaldehyde/kg, and calculated that this would lead to a formaldehyde exposure of 17 micrograms per kg of body weight every day, equivalent to a 60 kg person consuming one milligram per day.

"The estimated dietary exposure levels arising from this worst case exposure scenario would still be approximately nine times lower than the TDI value of 150 micrograms per kilogram body weight set by the WHO," said the scientific panel in a statement.

"Considering that the potential dietary exposures estimates remain low compared to the toxicological reference values outlined above and that no systemic exposure to formaldehyde is to be expected at the estimated residual levels, the panel estimates that exposure to gelling additives containing residual formaldehyde at the levels of 50 mg/kg of additive would be of no safety concern," they stated.

The panel report that information on residual formaldehyde in other gelling additives was not available.

Carrageenan, a popular hydrocolloid used for texture and viscosity in food products, is a gum extracted from seaweed, largely sourced from the Philippines and Indonesia.

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