For decades we have been aware of the presence of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) in food stuffs, and legislation has changed the regulatory limits regarding the levels of PAHs several times, in order to keep up with the constant stream of evidence about how they affect us and the environment, what levels are safe and where levels might get too high. Another change for the regulations in the European Union (EU) is coming, EU No. 2015/1933. So what do we need to know and how can we make sure we comply?
PAHs - what are they and why should you comply?
PAHs are polycyclic, aromatic hydrocarbons (containing only carbon and hydrogen), found naturally in some instances, including in some foods, but also produced by incomplete combustion of carbon-based fuels like petroleum or wood. They are of interest to you and me because of their potentially adverse effects on consumers' health; as these compounds are classed as carcinogens and potentially can cause breathing problems in humans. There is also some evidence of linking fertility problems and birth defects in animal tests, but we do not know for certain that this is also the case in humans. PAHs are primarily hazardous to our health when metabolised inside of the body, so we generally need to bring them into the body, via breathing or eating, for harm to occur. Generally, the levels in air and our food are thought to be too low to cause us any harm, but the EU is constantly following up the latest data to make sure we are safe. They are bringing in new regulations from the 1st of April 2016 with some changes we will share with you below.
How are PAHs made?
One of the ways PAHs are made is by incomplete combustion. Because of this, smoked foods, such as smoked meat or fish, can have potentially higher than desired levels of PAHs in them. Anything cooked with a very high heat or charred can also contain these compounds, so even your char-grilled vegetables or fried steak is included. Some foods are known to contain levels that exceed current legislation of these compounds. Cocoa fibre is an example listed in the new regulations which is commonly used as an ingredient in low calorie, high fibre foods. Banana chips get high levels of PAHs from being fried in coconut oil which contains these compounds, and these are also listed. Also listed are food supplements derived from botanical extracts, dried herbs and spices, and propolis, royal jelly and spirulina. Food stuffs already included in the maximum level limits include vegetable oils, molluscs, chocolate, smoked meats & fish as well as infant baby formula.
Why are the levels too high and how can you make sure you comply with them?
No matter where you are across the supply chain, if your product is included in these regulations, you will need to comply. The good news is that there are organisations, such as Fera, that are there to help. The EU recognise that for some food stuffs there is not much that can be done, and when the food is consumed in small quantities, they are sometimes exempt from the maximum PAH levels. However, when something can be done, for example by reducing the amount of coconut oil used to fry banana chips, the maximum levels must not be reached. In the case of botanical extracts and herbs and spices, the high levels of PAHs are often the result of bad drying practices, so pressure from the new regulations should push producers to use better drying practice. Similarly, better practice can be used for producing food supplements derived from propolis, royal jelly and spirulina.
Getting help to make sure you comply and do not suffer as a business
Organisations exist that can help you with both the detection of PAHs and with advice on good practice and compliance.
Fera, the UK National Reference Laboratory for PAHs in food, are experts in PAH analysis and guidance.
They have the ability to work to the lowest limits of detection that come into play if you are involved in infant food, for example,
and they will interpret all of the results for you and advise you on what to do next. Most importantly you will receive advice on how to be as cost effective as possible
in your sampling plan and programme of analysis.