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Natural toxins in food: Many people are not aware of the health risks

14/2024, 15.05.2024

German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment publishes special edition of the BfR Consumer Monitor

Many people are concerned about residues of chemicals, contaminants or microplastics in their food. However, it is less well known that many foods also contain toxins of completely natural origin. These are often chemical compounds that plants use to ward off herbivores such as insects or microorganisms. These substances are found in beans and potatoes, for example, and can pose potential health risks. However, according to a recent representative survey by the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR), only just under half of the respondents (47 per cent) were even aware of plant toxic substances. The BfR Consumer Monitor Special on naturally occurring plant toxins also revealed that this risk worries 27 per cent. In contrast, residues in food (e.g. from plant protection products) and contaminants, i.e. substances that are not intentionally added to food (e.g. heavy metals), cause concern for 63 and 62 per cent of respondents respectively. "The survey results make it clear that risks of natural origin tend to be underestimated, while risks of synthetic origin tend to be overestimated," says BfR President Professor Andreas Hensel."

Link to the consumer monitor

Raw plant-based foods are consumed frequently by 34 per cent, occasionally or rarely by 45 per cent and very rarely or not at all by 19 per cent.

Which foods with naturally occurring plant toxins do you already know? If this question is asked openly and without pre-selection, potatoes are named first (15 per cent), followed by tomatoes, raw beans (nine per cent each) and mushrooms (five per cent).

Naturally occurring toxic substances worry 27 per cent in the survey. More than half of the respondents (53 per cent) feel poorly informed about plant toxins in food, while only eight per cent feel well informed.

At 63 per cent and 62 per cent respectively, significantly more consumers are concerned about residues or contaminants.

Residues are residual amounts of substances that are used in the production of food. For example, residues can remain in fruit, vegetables or cereals even if plant protection products are used correctly.

Contaminants, on the other hand, are undesirable substances that unintentionally end up in food. They can occur naturally in the environment, arise during the processing of raw materials into food or be released into the environment as a result of human activities. Contaminants are undesirable because they can be harmful to health under certain circumstances.

The study also shed light on the related topic of "mouldy food". Here, too, there is a clear need for education. Even small amounts of mould toxins can be harmful to the health of humans and animals. Mouldy jam, for example, should therefore always be disposed of completely. Nevertheless, 25 per cent of respondents stated that they only remove the mouldy part. Even in the case of mouldy berries, affected and surrounding fruit should no longer be eaten. Only 60 per cent adhere to this rule.


About the BfR

The German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) is a scientifically independent institution within the portfolio of the Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture (BMEL) in Germany. The BfR advises the Federal Government and the States (‘Laender’) on questions of food, chemicals and product safety. The BfR conducts independent research on topics that are closely linked to its assessment tasks.

This text version is a translation of the original German text which is the only legally binding version.


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