Date Published: 28 January 2009

Levels of metals and other elements from the 2006 Total Diet Study

Health Food - illustrating an item from the UK Food Standards Agency.

A survey into the amount of metals and other elements in our food has found that most are the same or lower than the previous survey.

The Food Standards Agency carried out a measurement of the concentrations of 24 metals and other elements in the Total Diet Study (TDS). Foods representing the average UK diet were collected from 24 UK towns and analysed for their levels of aluminium, antimony, arsenic, barium, bismuth, cadmium, chromium, copper, germanium, indium, lead, manganese, mercury, molybdenum, nickel, palladium, platinum, rhodium, ruthenium, selenium, strontium, thallium, tin and zinc.

The Committee on Toxicity of Chemicals in Food, Consumer Products and the Environment (COT) evaluated the results of this survey. They did not identify specific concerns for the health of consumers, but noted a need for more information on aluminium and barium. The concentrations of each of the elements in the food groups were lower than or similar to those reported in the previous TDS, conducted in 2000, with the exception of aluminium, barium and manganese.

Aluminium

While the estimates of dietary exposure to aluminium are not markedly higher than previous estimates, and are similar to the dietary exposure of adults and children in other European countries, the safety guideline value for aluminium has recently been reduced. As a result, some groups are over the new guideline. The safety guideline value is a level of intake that is not expected to result in any adverse effects even if consumed every day over a lifetime. The Agency is carrying out further work on aluminium levels in various foods.

Barium

The highest levels of barium in the survey were in nuts. People who eat large amounts of foods, particularly nuts may be over the safety guideline value. However, the COT’s evaluation suggests that the safety guideline value is very precautionary because of the lack of information on harmful levels and therefore consumption of high levels of barium from foods is not necessarily anything for people to worry about.

Manganese

The overall results indicate that the amount of manganese people take in through their food and drink have remained fairly constant since monitoring began in 1983. Most people’s manganese intake is within the safety guideline values, except for some toddlers who are slightly above the guideline. This is because of their smaller body weight and so their intake is greater compared to adults. However, the guideline value has a large safety margin and a small exceedance is not considered to be a concern for their long-term health.

The science behind the story

A number of metals and other elements are present in food and their levels are monitored by the Agency because of their possible effects on human health. Some elements, such as copper, chromium, selenium and zinc, are essential to keep us healthy but may be toxic if people take in a lot. Other elements are not thought to have any use by our bodies and taking in large amounts over a longer period could be bad for us. For example, some mercury compounds interfere with the way our nervous system works, lead can hinder brain development, and a type of arsenic can cause cancer. Other elements can cause short-term health effects. For example, high concentrations of tin in food can lead to an upset stomach.

Our surroundings are the main source of metals and other elements that get into our food. Some elements (such as arsenic) are present naturally but the major sources of other elements (such as lead) are because of pollution from industrial and other activities, such as agriculture and manufacturing processes.

 

Source: Food Standards Agency (FSA), UK.

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