EFSA Advises on the Safety of Aluminium in Food

Scientists at Europe’s food safety watchdog have assessed the safety of aluminium from all sources in food and established a Tolerable Weekly Intake (TWI) of 1 milligram of aluminium per kilogram of body weight. The experts on the AFC[1] Panel estimated that intakes of aluminium may exceed the TWI in a significant part of the European population.

The AFC Panel[2] based its evaluation on all available studies including some showing adverse effects of aluminium on the nervous and reproductive systems in animals.
The major source of exposure to aluminium for the general population is through the diet, with large variations in aluminium content between individual foods. Aluminium in foods originates from its natural occurrence, from the use of food additives containing aluminium and from the presence of aluminium in food contact materials such as pots, pans and foil. The main contributors to aluminium intake from the diet are cereals and cereal products (such as bread, cakes, biscuits and pastries) vegetables (such as mushrooms, spinach, radish and lettuce), beverages (such as tea and cocoa) and some infant formulae. Drinking water is a minor source of exposure. Additional exposure may arise from pharmaceuticals and consumer products containing aluminium compounds.

The opinion of the AFC Panel follows a request from the European Commission for advice on the possible risks to human health from the presence of aluminium in the diet and will now inform any further future consideration by EU risk managers regarding the use of aluminium in foods and food contact materials.

Commenting on the opinion, Dr Sue Barlow, Chair of the AFC Panel said: “This review is timely because it has highlighted the need for better data on the sources and extent of use of aluminium in food, so that exposure can be reduced for those who may be exceeding the TWI.”

Total dietary exposure to aluminium was estimated from studies from several European countries, including Netherlands, France, UK and Sweden. The Panel found large individual variations in dietary exposure can occur. The mean dietary exposure of adults varied from 0.2 to 1.5 mg/kg bw/per week. In children and young people, the highest exposures ranged from 0.7 to 2.3 mg/kg bw/per week.

The Commission asked the Panel to provide a detailed breakdown of exposure by source for the different population groups. However, due to the design of the human dietary studies and the analytical methods used, it was only possible to assess total aluminium exposure from food and not the contribution of the various sources, such as the amount naturally present, the contributions from food additives, and the amounts released during the processing and storage of food from foils, containers or utensils which contain aluminium.

Given the persistence of aluminium in the body, the Panel found it appropriate to establish a tolerable weekly intake (TWI) rather than a tolerable daily intake, and established a TWI of 1 mg/kg bw/week.

The Panel based its evaluation on the combined evidence from a number of animal studies showing adverse effects on testes, embryos and the developing and mature nervous system following dietary administration of aluminium compounds. The Panel commented that the available studies had a number of limitations and noted that there have been very few specific studies on individual food additives containing aluminium.

Aluminium has shown neurotoxicity in patients undergoing dialysis and thereby chronically exposed to high concentrations of aluminium. It has also been suggested that aluminium is associated with Alzheimer’s disease and other neurodegenerative diseases in humans; however, based on the available scientific data, the Panel did not consider exposure to aluminium through food to present a risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease.

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[1] Panel on additives, flavourings, processing aids and materials in contact with food (AFC)
[2] The work of the AFC Panel is now carried out by two new Panels: the Panel on food additives and nutrient sources added to food known as ANS and the Panel on food contact materials, enzymes, flavourings and processing aids known as CEF.