Statement on possible public health risks for infants and young children from the presence of nitrates in leafy vegetables

Nitrate, risk assessment, leafy vegetables, spinach, lettuce, children, human health
First published in the EFSA Journal
9 dicembre 2010
1 dicembre 2010


Nitrate is a naturally occurring compound present in vegetables, the consumption of which can contribute significantly to nitrate dietary exposure. The European Food Safety Authority Panel on Contaminants in the Food Chain (CONTAM Panel) issued an opinion on ‘Nitrate in vegetables’ in 2008. The European Commission subsequently requested more information on potential acute effects of nitrate exposure in infants and young children consuming lettuce or spinach, taking into account the possibility of establishment of slightly higher maximum levels as an alternative to local derogations. For infants, cooked spinach is more likely to be a component of the diet than lettuce. Nitrate exposure at the current or proposed maximum levels for nitrate in spinach cooked from fresh is unlikely to be a health concern, although a risk for some infants eating more than one spinach meal in a day cannot be excluded. For children, the CONTAM Panel concluded that levels of nitrate in lettuce are not a health concern. However the concentrations of nitrate in spinach have the potential to increase dietary nitrate exposure to levels at which a health concern can not be excluded for some young children. Enforcing the current maximum levels for nitrate in lettuce and spinach, or proposed maximum levels at 500 mg/kg higher than the current maximum levels, would have a minor impact compared to the situation of local derogations from the maximum levels, because only about 1 % of lettuce samples and 5 % of spinach samples exceeded the respective current maximum levels. Inappropriate storage of cooked vegetables can result in in situ conversion of nitrate to nitrite, resulting in an increased potential for causing methaemoglobinaemia. The CONTAM Panel noted that infants and children with bacterial infections of the gastrointestinal tract are more sensitive to nitrate, and recommended against feeding spinach to such children.

Panel members at the time of adoption

Jan Alexander, Diane Benford, Alan Raymond Boobis, Sandra Ceccatelli, Jean-Pierre Cravedi, Alessandro Di Domenico, Daniel Doerge, Eugenia Dogliotti, Lutz Edler, Peter Farmer, Metka Filipič, Johanna Fink-Gremmels, Peter Fürst, Thierry Guérin, Helle Katrine Knutsen, Miroslav Machala, Antonio Mutti, Josef Rudolf Schlatter and Rolaf van Leeuwen
Panel on Contaminants in the Food Chain
contam [at]
EFSA Journal 2010;8(12):1935
Question Number
On request from
European Commission