The EFSA recently re-evaluated the safety of nitrates and nitrites additives in food. Through their investigations they found that levels of the food additive are currently at safe levels and sufficiently protective for consumers.
They found that this is the case for all age groups, bar children whose food contains higher levels of both additives. However, they did state that should all dietary sources of the additives be considered that safe levels would likely be exceeded by all population age groups.
Sodium and potassium salts of nitrite and nitrate, also known as E249 and E252, are authorised as food additives by the EU.
They are authorised for use in meats, fish, and cheese products. They are added to hinder microbial growth (against botulism) and enhance the flavour of red meats.
The additive Nitrate is also found in high levels in certain vegetables, therefore meaning it can enter the food chain as contamination, usually via water.
Speaking about the re-evaluation was a member of the EFSA’s panel on Food Additives and Nutrient Sources, Professor Maged Younes. Also the chair of the Working Group Prof. Younes said “We re-assessed the safety of nitrites and nitrates added to food as part of EFSA’s re-evaluation programme of all food additives authorised in the EU before 2009. Based on the available evidence, we concluded that there was no need to change previously set safe levels for either substance.”
According to recent publications the current acceptable daily intake (ADI) for nitrates is 3.7 milligrams per kilogram of body weight per day (mg/kg bw/day).
The safe level for nitrites was re-established at 0.07 mg/kg bw/day, close to the slightly more conservative existing ADI of 0.06 mg/kg bw/day.
The re-evaluation was carried out using a refined exposure assessment.
Experts estimated that consumer exposure to nitrate solely from food additives was less than 5% of the overall exposure to nitrate in food, and did not exceed the safe levels.
This is however whiles not considering all dietary sources, which the EFSA say could mean that all age groups exceed safe levels.
Exposure from all dietary sources may exceed the ADI for infants, toddlers and children with medium exposure, and for highly exposed individuals of all age groups.
The importance of this re-evaluation is due to recent findings on the additives.
Nitrite is said to be linked to the formation of a group of compounds known as nitrosamines, some of which cause cancer. EFSA’s experts estimated their formation inside the body following the use of nitrites as food additives.
They concluded that when nitrites are used at approved levels, their contribution to overall exposure to nitrosamines is of low concern for health.
The re-evaluation also dealt some slightly alarming results. It found that nitrite unintentionally present in meat products from other sources such as environmental contamination can also contribute to the formation of nitrosamines.
Experts from the European Food Safety Authority concluded that these levels of nitrosamines might have potential health concerns but said that more research was needed to address uncertainties and knowledge gaps.
Prof Younes said that these gaps will be filled by future research, “After looking at all available evidence we concluded that nitrites and nitrates added to food at permitted levels are safe for consumers in Europe. However, there are still some knowledge gaps to be filled by future research.”
He also added that “In particular, further studies would be useful on nitrate-nitrite conversion in human saliva and the resulting methaemoglobin formation, on nitrosamine formation in food products to which nitrites have been added, as well as on additional epidemiological evidence in humans.”
Mr. Younes said that better data on the topic would help give us a bigger picture and help refine future risk assessments, “Better data on exposure to nitrites/nitrates from other food sources than additives (including from contaminants in vegetables) would also help to provide a more complete picture and refine future risk assessments.”
EFSA’s scientific advice will inform risk managers in the European Commission and Member States who regulate the safe use of nitrites and nitrates as food additives as well as their overall levels in food in the EU.