The compound 3-monochloropropane-1,2-diol, shortened to the equally catchy 3-MCPD, is a process contaminant formed during the production of refined vegetable oils and fat, and may be harmful to the kidneys. Levels are “especially high” in palm oil according to the Dutch National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM).
It is found in margarines, sauces, coffee creamers and bakery products such as cakes and cookies.
The RIVM published a report earlier this month in which it calculated exposure levels to 3-MCPD among the Dutch population using consumption data from an online national database and estimated dietary intake.
The compound was first detected in hydrolyzed vegetable protein (HVP), a seasoning ingredient in soy sauce and similar foods in 1978, in which it formed as a reaction product of hydrochloric acid with triacylglycerols, phospholipids and glycerol from the residual vegetable oil.
It found young children are most at risk of exceeding guidance levels, with seven-year-olds having the highest intake per kilo body weight – 35% went over the TDI. Exposure decreases with age, however, and from the age 17 and over less than 5% of the population are over the guidance limits.
In its 2013 scientific opinion , EFSA said most population groups consumed less than half the established tolerable daily intake (TDI) of 2 micrograms per kilogram of bodyweight, however very young children and the elderly could be at risk of consuming more.
But the study points out its own limitations which mean conclusions on the health risks cannot be drawn. "As far as possible, conservative choices were made to avoid underestimation of the exposure, but given the few foods analysed per relevant food group and the large variation in concentrations observed in some of the food groups, it cannot be concluded conclusively that the exposure estimates were conservative.
"Due to this, and exposure estimations that were close or exceeding the TDI during childhood, no properly substantiated conclusions regarding health risk could be drawn."
IMACE, the European margarine association, also noted that the RVIM study does not call for a change in dietary guidelines or nutrition advice on the back of the study's findings.
Cakes and cookies biggest contributors
For both adults and children, the food categories ‘cakes and cookies’, ‘margarine and cooking fat’, ‘gravy’ and ‘vegetable oil’ contributed most to overall exposure, writes the RVIM, together contributing to more than 75% of exposure.
For children aged two to six, nut-based spreads such as peanut butter and chocolate and hazelnut spreads also contributed to at least 5%.
The study says the results are “more or less similar” to EFSA’s estimates from its 2013 scientific report.
But as no concentration data for the Netherlands was included in EFSA’s study, the contributions reported in this study are likely to represent better the ‘real’ contributions to 3-MCPD in the Netherlands.
EFSA confirmed that it will publish its assessment of 3-MCPD next week.
Industry is proactive
Nathalie Lecocq, secretary general of Fediol, the trade group for European vegetable oil and protein meal manufacturers, said its members were committed to reducing levels of3-MCPD esters and glycidyl esters, and were doing so by proactively developing mitigation technologies.
“We prepared an updated review of available mitigation techniques at the vegetable oil and fat refining stage, which was shared with national and EU authorities, refiners that are not FEDIOL members and with refining industry outside Europe. It is available on our web-site,” she said.
Meanwhile, a spokesperson for IMACE said food safety is the highest priority for its members. “We monitor scientific knowledge and progress in this field closely. We also take concrete actions by working with our vegetable oil suppliers to strengthen product specifications and to stimulate the refiners to take appropriate actions to reduce the content of these compounds.”