13 December 2012

Ridding our diet of noxious substances

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Scientist are scrutinising our daily exposure to food contaminants across the diversity of European diets—a first that could ultimately help change our eating habit for better health

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British porridge, Dutch pea soup snert, Italian risotto or Spanish paella are only a small sample of the diversity of diets across Europe. The variety of food that makes each country so special is precisely what makes European Food Safety Authority (EFSA)’s job in assessing both the levels of beneficial compounds and that of harmful substances more difficult. The problem is that “we are lacking a common European methodology”, statistician Jean-Luc Volatier tells youris.com. He is the coordinator an EU-funded project called Total Diet Study (TDS) Exposure.

The project’s goal is to “develop a network [to gather data from various European countries] in order to be able to compare exposure to nutrients or contaminants, like heavy metals or pesticide residuals,” says Volatier, who is also head of the Scientific support department for risk assessment at the French food safety agency ANSES, in Maisons-Alfort, France. This is something food safety scientists have not been able to do to date because data is collected differently in every country, or even not collected at all in some Eastern European countries. Ultimately, “when comparable exposure data is available”, explains Volatier, “the quality of risk assessment will improve, and it will be possible to adapt and improve regulations.” This suggests that EU citizens will indirectly benefit from such research. 

To evaluate food contamination levels of harmful chemical contaminant in each nation’s diet, “you first assess the total diet in a country, then you collect food samples to reconstruct the architecture of food consumption. After analysing those samples, and determining the average concentration of the chemicals, you can combine those data and determine the exposure and thus the risk associated with the average consumption,” explains Italian toxicologist Francesco Cubadda, working for one of the project partner, the National Health Institute ISS, in Rome, Italy.

“These studies have a multidisciplinary effect”, says Julia Wärnberg, a medical nutritionist from Karolinska Institute in Sweden. “Total diet studies are valuable for nutritionists because they help providing us with reliable data on less studied nutrients as well as contaminants when we study health effects of different dietary patterns,” says Wärnberg, who is not associated to the project. “For example, current food composition databases do not include metals such as mercury, to reliably assess this kind of hazards in our dietary recommendations,” she notes. The data collected in the project will thus assist nutritionists in future work.

Miquel Porta, professor of epidemiology at the Autonomous University of Barcelona, Spain, who is also not associated with the project, welcomes the project as “necessary” and “logic”. He believes the outcome of projects such as TDS Exposure could help improve the way controls are performed and ensure that ultimately people are exposed to a minimum amount of harmful substances. “The presence of contaminants such as dioxins and other [so-called] organochlorine compounds [including pesticides] in the food chain tells us that the controls by both the administrations and the food companies are inefficient,” Porta tells youris.com, concluding: “we are facing a systemic problem that affects food, agriculture and environment.”
 

 

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