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Safety fears raised over carcinogen acetaldehyde in food

By Rory Harrington , 08-Mar-2010

Latest research has raised concerns over the safety of foods containing the chemical acetaldehyde after it was declared to be a human carcinogen, said regulators in Finland.

EVIRA, the Finnish Food Safety agency, voiced its misgivings over the substance - which is found at low levels in some fermented foods, fruit juices and alcoholic drinks - after the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) changed the cancer risk classification of acetaldehyde from an agent possibly carcinogenic to humans (Group 2B) to an agent carcinogenic to humans (Group 1).

The Finnish body said at present there was only a “suspicion” surrounding the substance and that no cause-effect relationship had yet been established between food-borne exposure to acetaldehyde and cancers.

However, EVIRA has passed on its acetaldehyde research data to the European Commission and European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). Finnish safety officials said that given the “extent of the matter” all future action would be taken at European Union level, with EFSA taking a lead role in assessing any risk from the chemical.

An EFSA spokesman told FoodProductionDaily.com: “Up to today, EFSA has not received any mandate from the European Commission to work on this substance.”

Acetaldehyde is an aldehyde of acetic acid. It is also known as ethanal, acetic aldehyde and ethyl aldehyde. It is found in low levels in some foods prepared by fermentation, such as milk products, soy products, canned vegetables and non-alcoholic beverages.

It is also found in fruit and fruit juices. During fermentation small amounts of acetaldehyde are formed as a metabolite of alcohol. The chemical is also used as a food-flavouring agent that is added to some pastries, fruit juices, soft drinks, sweet desserts and milk products.

Exposure to acetaldehyde

High consumption of alcoholic drinks is a major source of exposure to the chemical – with other significant avenues being via the respiratory tract through smoking and the workplace.

“Many alcoholic beverages contain acetaldehyde that is formed as a by-product during the production process,” said an EVIRA statement. “In addition, the microbes of the intestinal tract can produce acetaldehyde in saliva, gastric juices and in the contents of the colon from the intake of alcohol. Poor mouth hygiene adds to local formation of acetaldehyde from alcohol.”

People with a certain genotype – found especially in East Asian populations - suffer especially from the adverse effects of acetaldehyde. Drinking large amounts of alcohol and its combined effects with smoking have been suggested as adding “to the risk of falling ill especially with the cancers of the upper digestive tract”, said the Finnish body.
EVIRA confirmed it would launch its own investigation to determine levels of acetaldehyde in food this spring.

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