Refined vegetable fats derived from palm oil, used for margarines and infant formulae, may contain glycidol fatty acid esters, says the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR).
Glycidol in its pure form is a reported human carcinogen, based on results of animal studies, and because refined edible fats are used in products like margarine and in infant formula the BfR said it is taking the findings seriously.
“As there is no alternative to infant milk formula with refined fats for infants who are not exclusively breastfed, the manufacturers of these products must do everything they can to reduce the levels of glycidol fatty acid esters as far as possible,” said BfR in a statement.
However, a spokesperson for the BfR told FoodNavigator.com that there are a lot of questions unanswered. These include uncertainty over what levels of glycidol are released from the glycidol fatty acid esters during digestion in humans. The spokesperson added that it is not clear if glycidol fatty acid esters are metabolized in the same way as glycidol in its pure form.
According to the spokesperson, the fatty acid esters are produced during the racemating process, which is necessary to improve the taste profile of the fats.
The findings have come from the Chemical and Veterinary Test Agency (CVUA) in Stuttgart, and these data provided the first hint of the problem, said the spokesperson, but more research is needed.
Worst case scenario
“The analytical methods currently available do not, however, permit the determination, merely the estimation of the exact levels,” said the BfR in a statement.
BfR has presented its initial evaluation of the assessment on whether there is a potential threat to health, and this is based on the worst case scenario that glycidol is released fully during digestion from the fatty acid esters and is then available to the body.
“As the exact levels of glycidol fatty acid esters could not be reliably determined up to now in vegetable fats, BfR adopts the hypothetical assumption that one kilogram of edible fat contains one milligram glycidol,” it explained.
Based on this calculation, the risk assessor concluded that infants fed exclusively on industrially prepared infant milk formula would consume harmful levels of glycidol.
“In order to obtain robust exposure data for reliable risk assessment, BfR is of the opinion that there is an urgent need for the development and validation of a suitable detection method for glycidol fatty acid esters,” it said.
“Likewise, there is a need for research on the conversion of glycidol fatty acid esters into glycidol in the human body.”
By Stephen Daniells