Exposure to nitrosamines, compounds that can form in foods as they are prepared and processed, can cause cancer and damage DNA. The alarm was sounded by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), in a note in support of the new scientific opinion on consumer exposure to these substances. The alert is based on an EFSA study which evaluated the potential harm caused by nitrosamines for humans and animals and consumer exposure, and found that ten of these compounds are carcinogenic and genotoxic (i.e. they can damage the DNA). Additionally, based on animal studies, rodents have been shown to increase the risk of liver tumors (the most critical health effect noted).
The EFSA study assessed the risk by excess, that is, it started from the assumption that “all nitrosamines present in food have the same potential to cause cancer in humans as the most harmful nitrosamine”. A possibility that, however, experts consider unlikely in reality. Applying this method, the results showed that “for all age groups of the EU population, the level of exposure to nitrosamines in food is of health concern”. Now the EFSA report is being sent to the European Commission which will discuss possible legislative initiatives with the Member States. But how are these substances formed and in which foods can they be found?
How nitrosamines are formed
Nitrosamines are chemical compounds that can form in foods with their preparation and transformation, starting from nitrites, i.e. those substances used as additives in canned meats, cured meats, marinated fish, dairy products, soy sauce, processed vegetables and even in mother’s milk. Nitrites (and nitrates) are mainly used in meat, to preserve its integrity, maintain its color and improve its taste, but also to avoid the development of microbes such as Clostridium botulinum (bacterium responsible for botulism). Once it reaches the stomach and intestines, the nitrite can generate, thanks to the favorable acid environment, some N-nitrous compounds, the so-called nitrosamines, defined by the American institution Food and Drug Admistration “one of the most potent groups of carcinogens ever discovered”.
In this regard, a study conducted by Dr. William Lijinsky who had introduced nitrosamines in the feeding of some animals, saw that within six months 100% of the guinea pigs had developed tumors in 100%. The cancerous manifestations were present in every part of the body: in the brain, lungs, pancreas, stomach, liver and intestines.
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What foods are they found in?
Nitrosamines have been found in many types of food products, such as cured meats (cured meats), processed fish, cocoa, beer and other alcoholic beverages. And again in cooked meat, processed vegetables, cereals, milk and dairy products, fermented, pickled and spiced foods. However, the food group that contributes the most to nitrosamine exposure is meat and meat products, such as sausages and sausages.
The link between cancer and the consumption of red and processed meat
After reviewing 800 studies on the relationship between red meat and the onset of cancer, in 2017 the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) included processed meat among certain carcinogens (group 1, which also includes asbestos , ethyl alcohol and smoking, ultraviolet radiation and the Papilloma virus), and red meat among the probably carcinogenic substances for humans (group 2A).
Later, the Higher Institute of Health tried to reduce the alarm by stating that “epidemiological studies offer data of scientific correlations that cannot be interpreted as proof of a cause-effect relationship. This means that we can speak of an increased risk, and therefore of an increased probability that the disease will appear, when red or processed meat is consumed, but it cannot be said that the disease will certainly appear as a result of their consumption”.
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A varied and balanced diet reduces the risks
“Currently – explains the EFSA report – there are some knowledge gaps on the presence of nitrosamines in specific food categories”. Therefore, pending further research and insights, the experts recommend, in order to reduce intake as much as possible of nitrosamines, to follow a balanced diet which includes a large variety of foods.