EFSA, mineral oil hydrocarbons in food are a “potential health concern”

21 March 2023

While the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) provisionally confirmed that some substances in the group know as mineral oil aromatic hydrocarbons (MOAH) are a possible health concern, it also concluded that mineral oil saturated hydrocarbons (MOSH) do not pose a health concern to humans. Following this discovery, the European agency launched a public consultation on the draft scientific opinion on the update of the risk assessment of mineral oil hydrocarbons in food.

Mineral oil hydrocarbons (MOH) comprise various chemical compounds obtained mainly from petroleum distillation and refining. They are categorized into two main groups: MOSH and MOAH.

“For MOSH, adverse effects on the liver were observed in a specific strain of rat, but the evidence suggests that these effects are not relevant for humans. Therefore, we were able to rule out a risk for public health,​ said James Kevin Chipman, Chair of the working group on mineral oil hydrocarbons. 

Experts also looked at two different types of MOAH, concluding for one that it may contain genotoxic substances that can damage DNA in cells and may cause cancer. For genotoxins like these, it is not possible to establish a safe level.  

Little information is available on the occurrence of MOAH in food, so experts worked on two different predictive scenarios, both of which indicated a possible health concern using a margin of exposure approach.

MOH can enter food in many ways – through environmental contamination, use of lubricants for machinery, release agents, processing aids, food or feed additives and migration from food contact materials. 

The highest levels of MOH were found in vegetable oils and the highest exposure was estimated for young people, especially infants who have been fed exclusively with infant formula containing high levels of MOSH.

Experts recommended that more research be done to quantify the presence of MOAH in food and that toxicity data be collected to assess their risks better. 

For MOSH, it is important to keep studying the possible long-term effects on human health, stresses EFSA.

Back in 2021 consumer group Foodwatch published results​​ from an analysis of 152 products from Austria, Belgium, Germany, and the Netherlands. Findings revealed one in eight products tested was contaminated. The European Commission subsequently set recommended limits​ on MOAH contamination in food and requested specific product categories be analysed for the presence of MOAH, including stock cubes, biscuits, and chocolate spreads.

The limits were effective immediately but are not legally binding. Individual Member States can decide if they enforce the requirements.

Following EFSA’s findings, SAFE strongly believes that it is important to take into account the risks that MOHs may pose and to have binding limits to protect consumers’ health.