Nitrite and lead in food

Kim Stenvers

Nitrite and lead
are they as safe as we think?

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A recent study by the Rijksinstituut voor Volksgezondheid en Milieu (National Institute for Public Health and the Environment, RIVM) into nitrate and nitrite in foods has shown that the intake of nitrite and lead through food may not be safe for some people, despite the fact that they do not exceed the safe margin. Nitrite and nitrate are often used as food additives. Therefore, additional research is needed on the intake of nitrite and lead through food.

Nitrate occurs naturally in vegetables and in ground water and is converted to nitrite in the body. Nitrate and nitrite are sometimes added to food to increase the shelf life or to add colour. It is used to give meat its pink colour, for example. Nitrite is found in products such as salami or ham. Nitrate is used as a food additive in cheese.

Lead is a heavy metal. Food may contain lead because it may have leached from the soil into plants and crops, for example. In the long term, heavy metals are harmful to the kidneys, liver, brain and nervous system. However, lead concentrations in food have greatly diminished in recent years due to the use of lead-free gasoline and paint.

The RIVM calculated the intake of nitrate and nitrite on the basis of the maximum permitted levels that are laid down in the European additives regulation. The intake of lead was calculated based on the measured levels of lead in food. The calculated intakes of lead, nitrate and nitrite were then compared with health-based advisory values. Based on this, it was determined whether the intakes were within the safe margins. The recommended values that were used for this were the values laid down by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). EFSA carried out a toxicological study that showed that an excessive intake of nitrite may have adverse effects on the lungs and heart of young children. Nitrate negatively impacts growth. As previously mentioned, excessive intake of lead can affect the brain, kidneys and blood pressure.

So what exactly needs further investigation? For additional research on the intake of nitrite, it will be necessary to replace the maximum amounts of nitrite that are allowed to be added to food with the levels used in practice or the measured levels. The levels that have actually been measured are preferred, since they show more clearly how much nitrite actually occurs in food. In addition, it is important to include nitrite derivatives in the study to see if this is a problem in combination with the current use of nitrite. For additional research on lead intake, it would be possible to use biomonitoring. The RIVM has shown that this is an efficient way to investigate the exposure to lead and cadmium and the extent to which they affect a person’s health. This exposure and the extent to which lead and cadmium affect a person’s health are then measured based on the analysis of blood and urine samples provided by volunteers. The main advantage of biomonitoring is the risk assessment for these substances. Because exposure can be measured via multiple routes at the same time, any possible adverse effects become visible much earlier on.

It is not quite clear yet when this additional study will take place and what its results will be. The fact remains that the intake of nitrite and lead through food is probably more dangerous than was previously thought.

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