EUROPE – The European Food Safety Authority’s (EFSA’s) investigation, aimed at guiding the European Commission (EC) in establishing maximum Mineral Oil Hydrocarbons (MOH) levels in specific foods, has uncovered a disconcerting truth that demands immediate attention, with infants emerging as the most vulnerable population.

These elusive compounds, derived from crude oil, coal, gas, and biomass, have quietly made their way into our diets through environmental contamination, additives, and contact with food materials.

EFSA’s journey traces back to 2012 when its Scientific Panel on Contaminants in the Food Chain (CONTAM) first delved into the enigma of MOH.

Subsequently, the EC initiated a rigorous MOH monitoring program in both food and food contact surfaces, bridging critical gaps in analytical data.

The year 2020 marked a turning point as the EC entrusted EFSA with the task of updating its scientific perspective on MOH, this time with a focus on recent toxicity and occurrence data.

MOH can be neatly categorized into two main groups: mineral oil-saturated hydrocarbons (MOSH) and mineral oil aromatic hydrocarbons (MOAH), each bearing distinct health ramifications.

CONTAM’s initial analysis revealed that MOSH can quietly amass in human tissue, casting shadows of harm on the liver.

In stark contrast, MOAH, especially those wielding chemical structures adorned with 3 to 7 aromatic rings, emerged as potential culprits behind DNA damage and the ominous specter of cancer.

EFSA’s freshly minted review, spanning a decade of research from 2011 to 2021, casts a revealing spotlight on the situation.

It suggests that dietary exposure to MOSH is unlikely to raise concerns about liver damage, with confidence levels ranging from 66% to 95%.

However, the alarm bells ring louder when it comes to dietary exposure to 3-aromatic ring (or more) MOAH, associated with DNA damage and the harrowing specter of cancer.

The likelihood of potential health concerns skyrockets, registering at an alarming 99-100% for toddlers and over 66% for other age groups. Adding to the complexity, the absence of reliable toxicity data for 1- and 2-ring MOAH compounds heightens concerns.

Challenges and knowledge gaps

The epicenter of this silent threat appears to be none other than our kitchen shelves, with vegetable oils reigning supreme as the reservoirs of the highest MOH levels. More worrisome is the revelation that young individuals, particularly infants fed via infant formula, bear the brunt of this exposure.

Yet, amidst these unsettling discoveries, EFSA also acknowledges its limitations. Challenges include insufficient oral toxicity data for 3 or more ring MOAH compounds, along with the absence of data on their concentrations in foods.

The sheer diversity of chemical compounds within the MOH realm has rendered the creation of a comprehensive list of chemical characteristics a near-impossible feat.

EFSA’s clarion call to the EC reverberates with urgency. For MOSH, the recommendations span a broad spectrum of actions, from determining concentrations in food and refining analytical methodologies to enhancing knowledge about MOH’s sources in food.

Collecting data on the by-products formed as MOSH undergoes transformations within the body and investigating its structural properties are also on the agenda.

Equally crucial is an in-depth exploration of why MOH accumulates in the human body and an intensified focus on unraveling its toxic effects on human health.

As for MOAH, EFSA’s counsel extends to determining concentrations in food, amassing comprehensive data on composition based on aromatic ring numbers, and delving into the genetic implications of ring alkylation in 3 or more ring MOAH compounds.

The quest for oral toxicity data for 1- and 2-ring MOAH compounds and the relentless pursuit of sources of MOAH food contamination take center stage.

Additionally, there’s a pressing need to update technical specifications, offering detailed insights into MOAH content and composition in white mineral oils and waxes, which find use as food additives and in food packaging materials.

EFSA’s groundbreaking revelations on MOH thrust the spotlight on a hidden adversary in our food. They underscore the urgency of robust, preventive measures to safeguard infant health, as we navigate the evolving landscape of dietary risks and embark on a quest for safer, healthier food choices.

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