EFSA, nitrosamines in food raise health concerns

29 March 2023

According to the assessment conducted by EFSA on the health risk associated with the presence of nitrosamines in food, these compounds may pose a health concern for consumers. Ten types of nitrosamines found in food have been identified as carcinogenic and genotoxic, meaning they can cause cancer and potentially damage DNA.

The evaluation focused on potential harm to humans and animals as well as consumer exposure to nitrosamines. Dr. Dieter Schrenk, Chair of the Panel on Contaminants in the Food Chain, confirmed that the level of exposure to nitrosamines in food raises health concerns for all age groups across the EU population.

Dr Schrenk added: “Based on animal studies, we considered the incidence of liver tumours in rodents as the most critical health effect”.

What are nitrosamines?

Nitrosamines are chemical compounds that can form in food during its preparation and processing as a result of the transformation of nitrates.

Nitrosamines have been found in various types of food such as cured meat, processed fish, cocoa, beer, and other alcoholic beverages, with meat and meat products being the most significant contributors to nitrosamine exposure. Other food categories such as processed vegetables, cereals, milk and dairy products, or fermented, pickled, and spiced foods may also contain nitrosamines.

As direct experimental data on humans are lacking, EFSA believes it is necessary to fill this gap in order to calculate human exposure in an accurate way. The experts also recommend to:

  • carry out epidemiological studies with molecular approaches on the association between Nitrosamines and cancer;
  • control ‘confounding factors’ more accurately (e.g. drug use, other carcinogenic chemicals in food, occupational exposure, smoking);
  • standardise an analytical method for quantifying carcinogenic N-N-NAs, both volatile and non-volatile, in different food products;
  • obtain data on the possible presence of nitrosamines in processed foods other than processed meats (i.e. raw meats, vegetables, cereals, milk and milk products, fermented foods, pickled foods, spicy foods, etc.).

SAFE believes the results of EFSA’s assessment are alarming even if the dangerousness of these substances is not quantified. Therefore, we recommend that the European Commission immediately impose a reduction of these substances in food. This is technically possible because it already happens in organic production.