EFSA consider benefits of vegetables outweigh risks of nitrate

Posted by Isobel Drake on 6th June 2008

The European Food Safety Authority’s (EFSA) Contaminants Panel (CONTAM) has assessed the risks and benefits to consumers from nitrates in vegetables and concluded that the beneficial effects of eating vegetables and fruit outweigh potential risk to human health from exposure to nitrate through vegetables.

“We assessed both the risk and benefits of exposure to nitrate from vegetables and concluded that the beneficial effects of vegetables prevail,” Josef Schlatter, chair of EFSA’s Contaminants Panel, explained.

The Panel said that the average consumer eating approximately 400g of mixed vegetables and fruit per day would not exceed the Acceptable Daily Intake(ADI) for nitrate. In estimating exposure, the Panel assumed that all of the 400g of fruit and vegetables eaten by consumers could potentially be vegetables which are substantially higher in nitrate content than fruit.

The Panel added, however, that a small part of the European Union population (2.5%), who are high consumers of green leafy vegetables, could exceed the ADI for nitrate.

EFSA was asked by the European Commission to deliver an opinion on the risks to consumers from nitrate in vegetables and to consider the balance between health risks and benefits in order to provide an up-to-date scientific basis to support risk managers in defining future strategies on nitrate in vegetables.

Epidemiological studies do not suggest that nitrate intake from diet or drinking water is associated with increased cancer risk, though the human body changes nitrate into compounds, such as nitrite and nitric oxide, which can have possible health implications.

The main dietary sources of nitrate are vegetables, preserved meat and drinking water but vegetables and fruit can represent as much as two thirds of all nitrate intake. Nitrate is present in most vegetables to a varying degree but the critical driver for a high dietary exposure to nitrate is not the absolute amount of vegetables consumed but the type of vegetables (e.g. leafy vegetables) and the respective concentration of nitrate. Green leafy vegetables, such as spinach, lettuce and rucola have the highest nitrate content and, consequently, vegetables such as lettuce and spinach are already subject to EU regulation laying down maximum nitrate levels.

Nitrate content of vegetables also varies in relation to other factors, such as the extent of use of nitrate fertilisers and the amount of sunlight to which vegetables are exposed.

The CONTAM Panel noted that further mitigation of nitrate intake may result from processing (e.g. washing, peeling and/or cooking), thus providing an extra safety margin for consumers.

More information can be found online here.