EC study reveals carcinogenic PAHs in supplements

By Annie Harrison-Dunn

- Last updated on GMT

'Sources of contamination should be identified for highly contaminated products and remediating measures taken,' say EU researchers. Photo credit: / Elenathewise
'Sources of contamination should be identified for highly contaminated products and remediating measures taken,' say EU researchers. Photo credit: / Elenathewise

Related tags Food supplements Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon

Levels of carcinogenic PAHs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) in EU supplements vary widely from under safe limits to way over, according to a European Commission study ahead of new regulation on the issue.

Researchers from the Commission’s Joint Research Centre (JRC) tested 94 food supplements including botanical, fish oil and bee products for the presence of four markers of PAH contamination. The products were collected from Belgium, the Netherlands, Austria, Czech Republic, Poland, Ireland and France as well as India for comparison.

The report comes just a few months before new legally-binding maximum limits on PAHs in cocoa fibre, banana chips, food supplements and dried herbs and spices come into force.

Of the 94 samples tested, 68 exceeded the limits for the four EU marker PAHs while benzo[a]pyrene limits were exceeded in 49 of the samples.

PAHs are a large group of chemical contaminants produced naturally and by human intervention with food being the main source of exposure for non-smokers. 

They can be formed naturally by incomplete combustion of organic materials like wood or coal or via industrial processes like oil refinement.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has classed some PAHs such as benzo[a]pyrene as carcinogenic to humans.

In this latest study, the levels for the sum of the four marker PAHs – benz[a]anthracene, chrysene, benzo[b]fluoranthene and benzo[a]pyrene – varied between less than 0.25 and more than 700 micrograms (μg)

bees honey darios44
Propolis is contaminated by environmental pollution due to combustion processes, industrial and vehicle emissions. Photo credit: / darios44

per kilogram. 

Extracts of propolis – resins collected by honeybees from trees and plants to make honeycombs – and other bee products showed relatively high levels of the four PAHs at an average of 188.2 μg/kg.

The PAH compound with the highest concentration was chrysene. 

Meanwhile contamination levels of fish oil supplements were either very low or undetectable.

PAH contamination of supplements available on the Indian market did not differ to the European supplements. 

The higher end of the results demonstrated there was work to be done if manufacturers were to meet the requirements of the upcoming new EU regulation.

“[I]n some samples, considerably high ΣPAH4 [four EU marker PAHs] amounts were found, which could remarkably increase the daily exposure of consumers to PAHs.

“This is in agreement with literature data, demonstrating the need for continuous monitoring of ΣPAH4 in food supplements,”​ wrote JRC researchers Dr Zuzana Zelinkova and Dr Thomas Wenzl.

“Sources of contamination should be identified for highly contaminated products and remediating measures taken.”

Set to apply from 1 April 2016, EU Regulation 2015/1933​ lays out maximum levels of 10 µg/kg of benzo(a)pyrene and a collective 50 µg/kg for benzo(a)pyrene, benz(a)anthracene, benzo(b)fluoranthene and chryseneamends.

The four PAHs are used as markers of contamination because the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) said benzo[a]pyrene – a common marker substance used to test toxicity – was not a suitable marker on its own.

Playing catch up 

The researchers called for further data on food supplements, particularly given the levels were so variable and depended on the products and method of production.

Generally, PAH content is upped by "improper processing"​ like thermal treatment and inappropriate drying processes particularly for botanicals or through environmental accumulation from the environment particularly for things like propolis extracts.

Yet getting information on this contamination remained a challenge. 

“Analytical challenges were highlighted by the industry for herbal food supplements. Industry representatives pointed out the difficulties with measurement of PAHs in food supplements and stated that the accuracy of the data on the PAH contents of herbal food supplements could be low, due to the application of improper analytical methods.”

Last month the company Frutarom told us the upcoming regulation would likely “catch a lot of ingredient and supplement companies unprepared”​.

CEO Holger Riemensperger said at the time: “Before the regulation, many manufacturers did not know or measure the content of PAHs contaminants.”

The company said it has prepared using its patented HyperPure process, which selectively removes unwanted contaminants, including PAHs, pesticides and unsaturated fatty acids.

“We have analysed products from other sources and have already helped some customers comply with these new maximum levels by replacing some of the extracts they were using with ones produced via our HyperPure process,” ​said Riemensperger.

The cocoa industry has also struggled with the issue in the past, with some commentators saying PAH levels were upped during rainy season when growers smoke-dried beans on open fires to prevent them from getting mouldy and the crops being lost, according to our sister site ConfectioneryNews​.

At the time the chocolate, biscuits and confectionery trade group CAOBISCO said it had worked to develop a set of good agricultural practices to help tackle the issue. 

Source: Food Additives & Contaminants: Part A

Vol 32, Iss 11, pp 1914-1926, doi:10.1080/19440049.2015.1087059

"EU marker polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons in food supplements: analytical approach and occurrence"

Author: Z. Zelinkova and T. Wenzl

Related news

Show more

Related products

show more

Krill oil supports six key areas of healthy aging

Krill oil supports six key areas of healthy aging

Content provided by Aker BioMarine | 23-Feb-2024 | White Paper

The global population is getting older—according to WHO by 2050 the world’s population over 60 years will double and the population above 80 years will...

Related suppliers

Follow us


View more