Beyond Spice Scare: Health Risks Of Glycidol & 3-MCPD In Cooking Oils

The recent recall of spice mixes of major brands like Everest and MDH due to ethylene oxide contamination has rightly triggered public alarm. However, as a food safety professional, I want to draw your attention to a lesser-known but equally concerning issue: Presence of glycidol esters (GE) and 3-monochloropropane-1,2-diol (3-MCPD) in cooking oils. These contaminants, often overlooked, pose potential health risks, particularly for vulnerable groups like children and the elderly.

GE and 3-MCPD are process contaminants formed during refining of edible oils. They are predominantly found in refined palm oil and other oils like olive, coconut, and sunflower. Codex Alimentarius Commission (CODEX), an international food standards body, classifies these substances as potential carcinogens.

The Silent Threat to Health
The dangers of GE and 3-MCPD lie in their breakdown products, glycidol and 3-MCPD. Glycidol, a genotoxic carcinogen, can damage our DNA, the genetic blueprint of our cells, potentially leading to cancer. Studies on 3-MCPD have raised concerns about its impact on kidney function and reproductive health, particularly in animal models.

While the exact risks to humans are still being researched, European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has expressed concern over the potential harm, especially for children and high consumers of these oils. Children, with their developing bodies, are particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of toxins. Similarly, the elderly, often with compromised health, may be more susceptible to the detrimental impact of these contaminants on their kidneys and overall well being.

Understanding the Limits
CODEX has set maximum limits for GE and 3-MCPD in various food products to mitigate these risks. However, European Union has taken a more stringent approach, setting even lower limits for vegetable oils and fats intended for direct human consumption or used as ingredients in food. This reflects a growing concern about the potential long-term health effects of these contaminants.

What Are the Safe Limits?
The international food standards body has established maximum limits for GE and 3-MCPD in various food products. For refined oils and fats, the limits are 1,000 micrograms per kilogram (µg/kg) for GE and 20 mg/kg for 3-MCPD. European Union (EU) has adopted even stricter limits, setting a maximum of 50 µg/kg for GE and 0.8 mg/kg for 3-MCPD in vegetable oils and fats intended for direct human consumption or used as ingredients in food.

FSSAI’s Response & Regulations
Recognising the potential dangers, the FSSAI has taken proactive steps to address the issue. As of January 1, 2021, the FSSAI has set limits for GE and 3-MCPD in cooking oils, aligning with international standards set by CODEX. The maximum permissible levels are 1,000 micrograms per kilogram (µg/kg) for GE and 20 mg/kg for 3-MCPD.

Furthermore, FSSAI is working towards mandatory labelling regulations for cooking oils, which would require manufacturers to disclose the levels of GE and 3-MCPD on their product labels. This will empower consumers to make informed choices and select oils that adhere to safety standards.

Protecting Your Family’s Health
While the FSSAI’s efforts are commendable, it’s crucial for consumers to remain vigilant and take proactive measures to safeguard their health. Here are some tips for minimising your exposure to GE and 3-MCPD:
Choose Wisely: Opt for cold-pressed or unrefined oils whenever possible, as these undergo less processing and generally contain lower levels of contaminants.
Diversify Your Cooking Methods: Limit high-heat frying, which can increase the formation of GE and 3-MCPD. Explore healthier options like steaming, boiling, or baking.
Read Labels Carefully: Pay attention to the ingredient list and look for certifications or labels indicating low levels of GE and 3-MCPD.
Demand Transparency: Ask your preferred brands about their testing and quality control measures to ensure they are taking steps to minimise these contaminants in their products.

As we navigate this evolving landscape of food safety, remember that knowledge is power. By staying informed and making conscious choices, we can protect ourselves and our families from potential harm, ensuring that the food we bring into our homes is not only delicious but also safe and healthy.

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