Mineral oil hydrocarbons (MOH) comprise a diverse group of mixtures of hydrocarbons containing thousands of chemical compounds of different structures and size, derived mainly from crude oil but also produced synthetically from coal, natural gas and biomass. The chemical composition of most MOH mixtures is unknown and usually varies from batch to batch; specifications are often expressed in terms of viscosity, or ‘thickness’, as related to the applications of the products and not in terms of chemical composition. These highly complex mixtures have a wide variety of industrial and domestic uses. There are several possible sources of MOH in food: mainly food packaging materials, food additives, processing aids and environmental contaminants such as lubricants.
The potential human health impact of MOH varies widely; so-called ‘aromatic’ MOH may act as genotoxic carcinogens (that is they may damage DNA, the genetic material of cells, as well as cause cancer), while some ‘saturated’ MOH can accumulate in human tissue and may cause adverse effects in the liver. In the European Union, some low- and medium-viscosity MOH are authorised for use as food additives.