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Reduce estragole and methyleugenol contents in foods

16/2002, 24.06.2002

The natural constituents of foods may also pose a risk to health

According to the Federal Institute for Health Protection of Consumers and Veterinary Medicine (BgVV), the content of the plant constituents, estragole and methyleugenol, in foods should be reduced as far as possible on precautionary grounds. These two natural constituents in various plants demonstrated carcinogenic and mutagenic effects in several series of tests. This assessment has been confirmed by the Scientific Committee on Food (SCF) of the European Union in two scientific opinions on estragole and methyleugenol. No threshold value can be assumed for the carcinogenic and genotoxic effects of the two substances. The SCF has not, therefore, laid down any safe daily intake level for estragole or methyleugenol. Both substances can be found in certain spices and herbal teas, including tarragon, basil, anise, star anise, pimento, nutmeg, lemongrass as well as bitter fennel and sweet fennel fruits.

In terms of figures, it is not possible to estimate the actual scale of the risk to the consumer from the regular consumption of estragole or methyleugenol-containing foods. It is, however, unlikely to be very high given the relatively small intake amounts of these substances. No studies have been produced up to now which confirm a concrete risk to health in man.

For precautionary reasons, BgVV does however recommend that consumers restrict any ongoing and regular consumption of the above spices and herbal teas which goes beyond their occasional use in the kitchen. This applies in particular to fennel teas which are frequently given to children to treat wind. Tea preparations of this kind should only, therefore, be administered over longer periods after consulting a doctor or pharmacist.

BgVV recommends that the food-manufacturing industry take steps to reduce the contents of estragole and methyleugenol in foods as far as possible for precautionary health protection reasons. Especially stiff standards should be applied to foods which could be regularly consumed in large volumes over longer periods of time or which are intended as foods for children. The levels in children's teas, in particular, should be reduced to under the detection limits where possible through appropriate measures. The German industry has made it known that because of the information from BgVV the first steps have been taken towards reducing these levels.

In principle, it should be noted that more and more data on the natural constituents in traditional foods are now being obtained as a consequence of greater scientific understanding and increasingly sensitive detection methods. In some cases, they provide some indication of a possible but in many cases, as yet, not definitively clarified health risk. On the basis of the precautionary principle, BgVV endeavours to inform consumers in as comprehensive a manner as possible about new findings. Even if the grounds for suspicion, as in the case of methyleugenol and estragole, are not sufficient in order to justify a ban of traditional foods, the consumer is at least given an opportunity to adapt his personal consumption behaviour to his individual precautionary needs. This does not relieve the food-manufacturing industry of its obligation to use all available means in order to reduce the contents of critical, natural constituents as far as possible.

For toxicological reasons, consumers are generally advised to opt for variety and diversity in their choice of foods. In this way, they can avoid a one-sided burden with various potentially health-threatening substances which must be expected in isolated cases in small amounts in foods.