Q&A with Wim Mennes, EFSA’s working group chair on flavourings

Smoke flavourings serve as an alternative to traditional smoking, a long-standing practice used to preserve certain foods such as fish, meat, and dairy products. The smoking process also changes their flavour.

Posted on Nov 23 ,00:05

Q&A with Wim Mennes, EFSA’s working group chair on flavourings

Smoke flavourings do not have the same preservative function but when added to foods they give them a smoky taste.

EFSA has assessed the safety of eight smoke flavourings on the EU market, the authorisation of which was due for renewal, according to the applicable legislation.

Wim Mennes, chair of EFSA’s working group on flavourings, guides us through the main findings of this work and the next steps.

First, in which foods are smoke flavourings used?

Smoke flavourings are added to foods – like meat, fish, or cheese – as an alternative to the traditional smoking process. But they can also be used as flavourings in other foods such as soups, sauces, drinks, crisps, edible ices, and confectionery.

Why has EFSA evaluated their safety?

EFSA’s work on smoke flavourings is defined by EU legislation, which requires that the safety of smoke flavourings must be assessed before they can be marketed. Also, those currently on the market must be reassessed before the end of their authorisation period.

The eight products just assessed have been on the EU market for the past 10 years and the applicants have requested the European Commission to extend their authorisations for an additional 10. For the other two products currently on the EU market, the applicant did not request a renewal of their authorisation.

And what are the health risks?

Based on the available scientific evidence, we could not rule out concerns regarding genotoxicity for any of the eight smoke flavourings.

Genotoxicity is the ability of a chemical to damage the genetic material of cells. Changes or mutations to the genetic information within a cell may increase the risk of developing conditions like cancer and inherited diseases.

For this type of toxicity, it is not possible to define a safe level.

Did EFSA already assess these flavourings in the past?

Yes, we assessed them between 2009 and 2012, to inform the decision by the European Commission and EU Member States on whether or not to authorise their use.

At that time, the Panel identified safety concerns for most of the products due to their insufficient margin of safety at the proposed levels of use.

This led the European Commission and EU Member States to revise the levels of use proposed by the applicant and to allow for a more limited use in foods.

So what was new this time?

We used an updated methodology to assess the new data submitted by applicants. It is described in the updated 2021 EFSA scientific guidance, which was not available at the time of the first assessment. It recommends that if a single component of a complex mixture (like smoke flavourings) is confirmed as genotoxic, the whole mixture is to be considered as genotoxic.

We concluded that six of the smoke flavourings that we assessed contain genotoxic substances and therefore raise safety concerns. And we could not rule out safety concerns for the other two due to a lack of data.

What does EFSA’s advice on smoke flavourings mean for consumers?

In general, there may be an elevated risk of harmful effects when consuming genotoxic substances. However, the likelihood of these effects emerging depends on various factors, including an individual’s genetics and dietary habits. The chance that such harmful effects would occur as a result of consumption of foods flavoured with smoke flavourings has not been investigated by EFSA. However, it is worth noting that EFSA takes a conservative approach to its assessments, meaning that we consider worst-case scenarios to estimate hazards and risks.

A balanced diet generally reduces the likelihood of exposure to food risks. Balancing the diet with a wide variety of foods, e.g. meat, fish, vegetables, could help consumers to reduce their intake  of harmful substances.

What happens now?

The European Commission and EU Member States will carefully consider EFSA’s scientific advice as part of discussions on appropriate risk management options for the smoke flavourings which are currently on the market.

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