In a representative study featuring just over 1,000 subjects, only 13% had heard of pyrrolizidine alkaloids (PAs) and roughly, one in three of those who have heard of PAs believe these substances pose a significant health risk.
The research also found differing attitudes in populations towards contaminants in food and the assessment of potential health risks, leading to recommendations to raise awareness levels for this topic among less well-informed groups.
"People feel most at risk from synthetic substances and heavy metals,” said German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) president professor Andreas Hensel.
"Appropriate risk communication on contaminants should take this subjective risk perception into account."
High consumption of tea infusions is a possible long-term concern for human health due to their carcinogenic properties, the European Food and Safety Authority recently ruled.
PAs, which can also appear in honey and dietary food supplements, has been given a new Reference Point (RP) by the agency of 237 micrograms per kilogram per body weight per day (μg/kg bw/day).
The ruling falls in line with findings outlined in 2011, in which EFSA found there to be a “possible health concern” for some high consumers of honey such as toddlers and children.
The BfR enrolled 1,001 people in a series of computer-assisted telephone interviews in which participants were asked about contaminants in food.
Along with PAs, only 26% of respondents recognized arsenic in rice and rice products, with 57% of those viewing the substance as a significant risk to health.
In contrast, the most well-known contaminants in food were mercury in fish and dioxin in eggs or milk (78% and 70%, respectively).
“The example of PA shows that a scientific examination of possible health risks of contaminants in foodstuffs is not necessarily associated with their respective awareness among the population,” the study explained.
“The combination of far-reaching ignorance and low risk assessment among the population, which is known in risk-perception research shows that there is a clear need for action in this area in particular.”
Youngsters less informed
The study also found that younger people felt less well informed about undesirable substances in food than their older counterparts.
Around 41% of 14 to 29 year-olds said that they were poorly or very poorly informed about undesirable substances in food compared to 15% of those above the age of 60.
The researchers noted that it was these older relatively well-informed respondents, who wanted additional information on possible protective measures, legal regulations and affected product groups.
“In the future it will be necessary to create a coherent understanding of food contaminants in lay public, while at the same time taking account of the fact that they differ in terms of possible individual measures for minimizing risk,” the study concluded.
“In addition, less well-informed groups of persons must first be achieved in the sense of "awareness-raising.”
Source: Federal Health Gazette - Health Research - Health Protection
Published online ahead of print: doi.org/10.1007/s00103-017-2557-2
“Risk management of contaminants in food.”
Authors: Severine Koch, Mark Lohmann, Astrid EppGaby-Fleur Böl