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What nature's poison kitchen offers

31/2023, 27.12.2023

Natural defences of plants are the focus of the new "BfR2GO" science magazine

Plants use chemical defences to keep predators, insects and microorganisms away. Some of these substances can maintain human health – or harm it. The German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) is investigating whether plant-based ingredients in food can trigger health impairments. A nationwide survey commissioned by the BfR shows what the population knows about herbal ingredients and what potential risks people expect from consuming them. "More than 60 percent of respondents are concerned about residues or contaminants in food – this only applies to 27 percent of people when it comes to naturally occurring plant toxins. Natural risks are often underestimated, even though the most toxic substances, such as ricin or fungal toxins, originate from nature," says BfR President Professor Dr Dr Andreas Hensel. "Our survey shows how little the population is aware of the health effects of herbal ingredients. There is a need for risk communication here."

Link to BfR2GO issue 2/2023 PDF-File (7.2 MB)

Aside from concerns about health risks from synthetic substances in food, nature's poison kitchen is frequently overlooked. Problems can arise through the concentrated intake of a substance in an amount that is not usually reached by normal consumption. If, for example, a food supplement contains highly concentrated extracts of herbal ingredients, it is important to assess possible health risks, including interactions. Each substance must be considered individually, sometimes only the dose makes the health-related difference. For example, coumarin in high doses in certain types of cinnamon leads to liver-damage and may only be contained in foods to a limited extent.

In addition to the main topic, the new BfR2GO issue takes a close look at mycotoxins. Current data show that the invisible mycotoxins can be present in cheese and sausage without taking the route via contaminated feed. Scientists at the BfR are developing various analytical methods to detect traces of previously unknown mycotoxins. Toxic substances, or rather poisonings, are also subject of the article on the new national poisoning register at the BfR. To date, cases of poisoning have not been recorded throughout Germany. This is set to change, as children in particular can suffer serious health damage by poisoning. The aim is to identify potentially dangerous products more quickly and, at best, to save lives.

The article "Understanding the beginning" sheds light on very early pregnancy and its hazards caused by chemical substances. Using embryoids – embryolike

tissues created from mouse stem cells –, BfR scientists are investigating how an embryo implants in the uterus and how substances affect this process. Tissue cultures "simulate" pregnancy – without animal experiments.

How BfR scientists explore the influence of the environment and lifestyle on our genes is also a topic in the latest BfR2GO issue, as well as the detection of smallest genetic changes and the tracing of their origin.

Physicist and comedian Vince Ebert calls for priority for facts in an interview on science and risk. With further topics relating to the possible end of PFAS chemicals and to an EU research project on unknown chemical substances, as well as with tips for the fondue and raclette season, the current issue of BfR2GO provides up-to-date and well-founded information in a compact format on research and its assessment in consumer health protection and on the protection of laboratory animals.

Each issue of BfR2GO focuses on a subject from one of the current fields of work at the BfR. In addition, there are reports, interviews and news from all BfR work areas. BfR2GO is published on the BfR website in German and English and can be downloaded free of charge or ordered directly for free in order to browse. If you would like to receive the magazine on a permanent basis, you can sign up for a free subscription.


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