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Consumers know very little about the toxins in our food

Danish consumers have scant knowledge about a number of toxic chemicals in food. The toxins we know most about are those that worry us the most.

[Translate to English:] Forbrugernes kendskab til sundhedsskadelige stoffer i fødevarer er ikke stor. Foto: Colourbox



If you do not know of the group of toxins called phenylhydrazines and the foods they may be present in you are not alone. Acrylamide, lectins and Bisphenol A (BPA) are also names of toxins that are not uppermost in people’s consciousness – but perhaps they should be because they may be hazardous to health and they are present in our food.


A study by Aarhus University scientists of Danish consumers' awareness of toxic chemicals in foods shows that their awareness of a number of these is rather poor. This applies both to their factual knowledge and to their self-assessment of their level of knowledge.


- The purpose of the study was to measure how much Danish consumers know about toxins in food, their everyday awareness of them and whether they know how they can minimise their exposure to them, says research assistant Katherine Volke Christensen from Aarhus University.


Lack of knowledge

A representative sample of consumers was asked in a questionnaire about their knowledge of a wide range of specific hazardous chemicals in food. The consumers were asked to answer not only question of their level of knowledge about specific toxins, but also whether they knew what type of food the toxin could be found in and their potential adverse health effects.


Thirteen toxins were included in the study. The list included toxins from process contamination that can occur when food is cooked (acrylamide and PAHs), environmental pollutants (dioxins, cadmium, inorganic arsenic, Bisphenol A (BPA) and mercury), natural toxins (phenylhydrazines, nitrate, lectins, solanine and mould) and pesticide residues.


The results showed that consumers had relatively little knowledge and concern about individual toxins, but they had a relatively high level of concern about toxins in food in a general sense. Overall, the more consumers knew about a toxin, the higher their level of concern.


Knowledge varies

Although knowledge about individual toxins was generally low, there was still a difference in how much consumers knew about individual toxins. Did you know, for example, that Bisphenol A is an endocrine disruptor found in certain types of hard plastic, metal screw lids and cans? Or that solanine from green potatoes can cause diarrhoea, vomiting and headaches?


In the poll of consumers, these two toxic food ingredients ranked at the bottom of the list of consumer awareness. At the other end of the scale figured mercury, nitrate and traces of pesticides. Here consumers felt a bit more at home and were better able to give correct answers to questions about where these substances could be found, what effects they can have and how to avoid them.


Mushrooms with natural toxin

Returning to phenylhydrazines. These substances are found in mushrooms – with the largest concentrations in raw mushrooms – and are suspected of being carcinogenic. The Danish Veterinary and Food Administration recommends that you do not consume too much raw mushrooms, and here too much means significantly more than the average consumption of 2.2 kg per year.


The occurrence, effects and methods of preventing excessive consumption of the other toxins included in the study can all be found in the report "Study of Danish consumers' awareness of toxic chemicals in food, DCA Report No. 32, December 2013", which has been published by DCA – Danish Centre for Food and Agriculture. The report can be downloaded here (in Danish – English summary)


The study was commissioned by the Danish Veterinary and Food Administration and is part of the agreement between Aarhus University and the Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Fisheries for the provision of research-based support.


For further information please contact: Research assistant Volke Katrine Christensen, Department of Business Administration, MAPP - Centre for Research on Customer Relations in the Food Sector, e- mail: katc@asb.dk.