Groundbreaking opinion on dioxin toxicity



Curtesy the European Commission

We have previously covered the group of 29 nasty chemicals collectively called dioxins and dioxin-like PCBs because of their similar mode of action.

In brief, they are toxic chemicals that persist in the environment for years and accumulate at low levels in the food chain, usually in the fatty tissues of animals.

However, different interpretations among scientific organisations of their absolute toxicity have led to some confusion.

Harmonisation needed

In an attempt to develop a better understanding of the risks to human and animal health conferred by dioxins and dioxin-like compounds, the European Food Safety Authority initiated a groundbreaking review of the available scientific literature and exposure information. In an exhaustive opinion published in November 2018, EFSA’s Panel on Contaminants in the Food Chain concluded that such environmental pollutants, although only present at low levels in food and feed, pose a considerable health concern.

Accordingly, the Panel set a new tolerable weekly intake (TWI) for dioxins and dioxin-like PCBs in food of 2 picograms per kilogram of body weight, an incredibly low limit reflecting their severe toxicity.

The new TWI is seven-times lower than the previous EU tolerable intake set by the European Commission’s former Scientific Committee on Food in 2001. The change is based on the availability of new epidemiological human and experimental animal data on the toxicity of these substances and more refined modelling techniques for predicting levels in the human body over time.

Current protection not sufficient

eating_meatThe new TWI is protective against effects on semen quality, the most sensitive adverse health effect, as well as a lower sex ratio of sons to daughters, higher levels of thyroid-stimulating hormone in new-borns and developmental enamel defects on teeth.

Worryingly, data from European countries indicate an exceedance of the new tolerable intake level with the main contributors being fatty fish, cheese and livestock meat.

Average and high exposures were, respectively, up to five and 15 times the new TWI in all age groups.

Should you take action?

As there are little or no acute health effects from consuming single foods containing dioxins and dioxin-like PCBs, it’s more a matter of cumulative chronic effects outside the direct control of individual consumers.

Although the presence of these compounds in food and feed has declined in the last 30 years thanks to the efforts of public authorities and industry, a further concerted effort is needed to bring current exposure to safe levels.

Thus, continued vigilance is important, particularly in light of the new proposed TWI. As this is not always the case and testing of food is expensive, some pressure from consumer groups could be beneficial.


New liquorice warnings


Liquorice is a popular sweetener found in many soft drinks, food products, snacks and herbal medicines. It has a rich history as an old remedy that was used by ancient Egyptians and Assyrians made into a sweet liquid drink. There is a traditional belief that liquorice is a healthy natural substance without side effects driving its liberal consumption that can occasionally be hazardous.

If you have followed this blog for a while you might remember that we have covered the good and the bad of liquorice before. Now we also cover the ugly.

The good

Liquorice is extracted from the roots of the plant Glycyrrhiza glabra, a member of the pea family. Most liquorice roots are wild-harvested with collection occurring mainly in Central Asia (Iran, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan and China). Liquorice extract is produced by boiling liquorice root and subsequently evaporating most of the water. Large-scale extraction is limited to China and Iran. Glycyrrhizin, that is 50 times sweeter than sugar, is the main active component in liquorice extract and apart from sweetness also provides the desirable liquorice flavour. Moderate consumption of liquorice is associated with several health benefits in that it can quickly soothe sore throats and coughs among some other positive effects.

The bad

Unfortunately, it has long been known that excessive and prolonged consumption of glycyrrhizin intensifies the effects of the stress hormone cortisol by inhibiting the enzyme that inactivates cortisol and may interfere with the sodium and potassium balance. High levels may increase hypertension. Thus, it has been suggested to limit consumption of glycyrrhizin to 100 mg per day, the approximate amount found in 60–70 g of liquorice candy. However, it is not that easy to estimate intake of glycyrrhizin as various forms of candies, beverages, supplements and extracts contain very different amounts of the active components.

The ugly

Pregnant womenRecently new warnings were issued by the Finnish National Institute for Health and Welfare to women to avoid consuming large amounts of liquorice during pregnancy as it can have long-term harmful effects on the development of the foetus. A new Finnish study had shown that youths previously exposed to large amounts of liquorice in the womb performed less well than others in cognitive reasoning tests carried out by a psychologist. The difference was equivalent to approximately seven IQ points.

Those exposed to liquorice also performed less well in tasks measuring memory capacity, and according to parental estimates, they had more ADHD-type problems than others. With girls, puberty had started earlier and advanced further.

In this study a large amount was defined as daily consumption of more than 70 mg and compared to consumption of less than 35 mg glycyrrhizin.

The lesson

Although cortisol is essential to the development of a foetus, large increases initiated by excessive consumption of liquorice can be detrimental.