Benzo[a]pyrene: The chocolate industry's burning issue

By Annie-Rose Harrison-Dunn

- Last updated on GMT

Smoke drying increases levels of carcinogenic compounds
Smoke drying increases levels of carcinogenic compounds
Benzo[a]pyrene (BaP) has emerged as central protagonist in the recent Russia-Ukraine confectionery imbroglio in which Russia banned imports from Ukrainian firm Roshen after the carcinogenic compound was allegedly discovered.

The ban arose after Russian food safety agency Rospotrebnadzor said it detected levels of BaP in Roshen products, although the levels have not as yet been revealed. For its part, Roshen said Rospotrebnadzor inspectors never set foot inside its facilities.

Science behind the smoke

BaP is a polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon (PAH) that is a by-product of incomplete combustion or burning of organic, carbon-containing items.

The Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) has said that “13 PAHs are clearly genotoxic and carcinogenic.”

BaP is used as a marker of exposure to the 13 cancer-causing PAHs.

“Benzo[a]pyrene is found in chocolate. That’s quite normal due to the raw materials. BaP is found when you do heat treatments, when you dry things, when you roast them or grill them, BaP is formed. In fact it can be enriched and as chocolate can be quite fatty it can contain quite high amounts depending on the process of production,” ​explained a company spokesperson for Eurofins' department of organic contaminants.

Current regulation

Current EU regulations concerning BaP and PAHs stipulate that 5 micrograms per kilogram of the chocolate’s fat is the maximum amount allowed. Levels above this are legally unmarketable.

According to the Eurofins spokesperson, the dangers of these compounds are long term and chronic, as opposed to short term and acute.

Ubiquitous issue

According to a study led by Professor Ebouna Wabdan, department director of waters, forests and environment at INP-HB, BaP levels are increased in cocoa by the use of improvised drying techniques. 

During rainy season, growers may smoke-dry the beans on open fires in order to prevent them from getting moldy. This creates the by-product PAH which will be carried through to chocolate form, explained Professor Wabdan. They found this practice to be widespread. 

Caobisco's communications and projects manager Laurence Vicca told us that, "public authorities in cocoa producing countries and the private sector through the supply chain are aware of the occasional presence of Benzo[a]pyrene (a compound of PAH) in cocoa and are working together to address this issue."

"They have developed Good Agricultural Practices (GAP), including preventive measures, that are applied in the different cocoa producing countries around the world since 2007," ​she explained.  

"The combination of Good Agricultural Practices at local level and the maximum levels for polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) in cocoa beans set by the European legislation (Commission Regulation (EC) No 835/2011) ensure that the chocolate sold in the EU is safe to eat,"​ Vicca said. 

According to Eurofins research levels of BaP varies widely depending on the handling of the raw materials. 

Their spokesperson declined to comment on the Roshen case specifically since actual figures have not yet been released by Rospotrebnadzor. Rospotrebnadzor remains unreachable. 

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