Detection and effects of toxic substances

Toxic substances may be formed during the processing of food and feed, which must then be analysed and their effects determined.

Research areas

Within BfR there are projects that examine the following substances:

  • Acrylamide
    The main starting material for the formation of acrylamide in foods is the amino acid asparagin which is mainly found in potatoes and cereals, and reacts with sugars like glucose. Acrylamide, which is mutagenic and carcinogenic, is formed during roasting, frying or deep-frying. BfR is currently involved in the improvement of detection methods. Furthermore, it conducts studies on consumer behaviour in order to undertake an exposure assessment and elaborate recommendations for risk reduction.

  • Furan
    Foods which go through heating during production, may contain furan. This substance has proved to be carcinogenic and mutagenic in animal experiments. However, the available data are not sufficient to estimate the consumer’s total exposure. Under the direction of BfR proficiency testings were conducted in order to be able to analyse foods in a targeted manner and determine the risk potential in future.

  • Heterocyclic aromatic amines
    Heterocyclic aromatic amines are formed during the roasting or grilling of meat products and fish. In the course of metabolisation mutagenic substances may be formed in the body. Under controlled conditions a pilot project is to provide reliable data on the contamination of fried and grilled meat with aromatic amines as up to now the only available data were for random samples. Analytical methods based on mass spectrometry are being developed and validated within BfR for the exact determination of heterocyclic aromatic amines in foods.

  • Benzene
    Benzene is carcinogenic and causes genetic damage in germ cells. As a contaminant it is mainly found in exhaust emissions although it may also occur as an impurity in drinking water and food. Traces of benzene have also been found in fruit beverages. It is probably formed by a chemical reaction between benzoic acid and ascorbic acid (vitamin C). This is currently being examined in more depth within BfR.

Genotoxicity of flavourings

Flavourings are added to food in order to give them a special aroma or flavour. Natural, natural-identical, artificial aromas and aroma extracts are used.

One substance class of flavourings encompasses ,ß-unsaturated aliphatic aldehydes (2-alkenals). These are natural components of many foods; trans-2-hexenal, for instance, is found in many fruits. Furthermore, 2-alkenals may be formed during lipid metabolism in the human body. These are highly reactive substances, which may readily react with proteins and DNA leading to damage to the cell or genetic material. They can, however, be easily detoxified through oxidation, reduction or glutathione conjugation.

The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) is currently in the process of assessing the approximately 2,700 common flavourings in the EU according to a special procedure. This also includes many 2-alkenals. The data available for assessment are, in many cases, very sparse and the assessment is, therefore, to be supplemented by research within BfR.


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