Health Risk – Potential Carcinogens Found in Advent Calendar Chocolates – German Investigation: There is currently something of an uproar in the German Press because of a study just published (1st. December 2015) by the Bavarian State Office for Health and Food Safety (Bayerisches Landesamt für Gesundheit und Lebensmittelsicherheit). This official body has identified the presence of potentially carcinogenic Mineroil Oil Aromatic Hydrocarbons in chocolates tested from Advent Calendars currently on sale.
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At this point I must lay my cards on the table, I am a chocoholic and consume rather large quantities of the stuff all year round (not just at Christmas). To feed my addiction I buy a lot of high cocoa content chocolate, mainly when I am staying in Germany. I have always been confident in the high standard of quality of the products I buy there and feel I get good value for money (a bit like VW car purchasers have felt for many years).
Therefore it was with some degree of horror as I was scanning the Bavarian Press this morning that discovered there has been contamination of chocolate sold in advent calendars with some rather unpleasant substances: Mineral Oil Aromatic Hydrocarbons (MOAHs). These mineral oil derived products have no place in natural foodstuffs or in any other substance that can bring them into intimate contact with your internal organs or digestive tract.
I recently wrote an article on the occurrence of MOAHs in cosmetics and lip-care products which went into some detail about why these chemicals are potentially very dangerous – the link to that article is here. One of the concerns of that investigation was that even though we do not normally eat lip-care products we do use them around the mouth and therefore ingestion or absorption through the surfaces near the mouth region is quite possible.
At that time it didn’t occur to me that I could actually be eating products containing MOAHs and thereby introducing potential carcinogens directly into my digestive system. To avoid the risk of encouraging hysteria let me point out that the amounts of MOAHs identified in advent calendar chocolate are quite small, especially when compared with other ‘background’ sources of MOAH we might be ingesting each year (for example through rice or cereals which may be contaminated through their packaging or processing). This is because we are only likely to eat one small piece of advent calendar chocolate each day for just 24 days each year. But what if this contaminated calendar chocolate is just the tip of the iceberg? What if the chocolate we eat generally contains MOAHs? If this is the case the level ingested each year from chocolate could be much higher.
To try and better understand the risk I looked more closely at the research results and the likely causes of the contamination. Towards the end of this article I will also share with you the names of past suppliers of contaminated chocolates so you can see that this is not a problem that is just limited to a few local shops in Bavaria.
Why worry about MOAHs? Here is a brief explanation taken from my earlier article on cosmetics: “according to the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) some components of the Mineral Oil Aromatic Hydrocarbon fraction could pose a carcinogenic risk (this ‘fraction’ like many oil products is a blend of many different aromatic hydrocarbons which pose varying levels of carcinogenic risk). This risk results from the ability of some MOAHs to cause genetic mutations by altering the structure of the DNA of the body’s cells. (DNA provides each cell in the body with an ‘instruction’ template from which it manufactures its proteins – mutations are changes to DNA which cause the cell to manufacture the wrong proteins). These mutations can create cancerous growths from otherwise perfectly healthy body cells. As a result the EFSA considers that the intake of MOAHs via foodstuffs to be a cause for concern.”
How can MOAHs get into chocolate or other foodstuffs? The Bayerisches Landesamt für Gesundheit und Lebensmittelsicherheit (LGL) explained in their report that one possible source of contamination is the packaging used for the food products. Although new or ‘virgin’ cellulose fibres are used to produce the paper and card used to pack food products, sometimes recycled paper/board is also used. This recycled material, especially from newspapers, will have been printed using solvents containing MOAHs. If the packaging comes into direct contact with the food contamination can occur. Packaging was believed to be the source of MOAH contamination of stored rice found in a 2009 Swiss study (Untersuchungsergebnissen des schweizerischen Kantonalen Labors Zürich).
However in the LGL’s tests of 11 advent calendars only one used recycled material the packaging for the rest comprised of virgin fibres. In addition 4 of the 11 samples had chocolates protected from the packaging by barrier material (either by being individually aluminium foil wrapped or by using packaging coated with a plastic barrier layer). For 5 of the samples the LGL also had documentation that the calendar’s packaging was printed using mineral oil free solvents. Therefore to a large extent the manufacturers had eliminated the risk of contaminating the chocolate with MOAHs from their own packaging.
Despite these precautions potentially carcinogenic MOAHs were found in 5 samples of chocolate, 4 of which had no MOAHs in their packaging – again ruling this out as a source of contamination. This would indicate that the contamination occurred before the food product was packaged for sale. MOAHs can also enter foodstuff during wholesale transport either of the product itself or the raw materials used in its production (e.g. sacks used when transporting cereals or beans). Also mineral oils may be used in the machinery used for harvesting or processing the food.
This morning the German press was in uproar because the LGL refused to name which products were contaminated – the authorities wanted to discuss the results first with the manufacturers. The LGL reiterated that the level of potential contamination to each person from just one small piece of chocolate 24 days per year is relatively small. The press felt that consumers have a right to know (especially with Christmas approaching). They supported the view that any measurable contamination with this potential carcinogen should be avoided and that those selling such products should be named and shamed. This is very much the approach adopted by another independent German consumer products testing organisation ‘Stiftung Warentest’.
In November 2012 Stiftung Warentest did a similar MOAH analysis of 24 Advent Calendars that they had secretly purchased. As well as publishing their analytical results they also published the names of the products/manufacturers against the results together with photographs of the calendars tested (with prices paid and ‘sell before’ dates). Aromatic hydrocarbons (MOAHs) were found in chocolates from Friedel, Lindt, Hachez, Smarties, Feodora, Riegelein, Arko (high levels!), Confiserie Heilemann (high levels!), Rausch (high levels!). Their rating ‘high level’ was given to chocolate containing over 3 mg/kg MOAH – the other products named here had levels over 0.5 mg/kg. If you would like to see the full table of their results (with pictures of the products) the link is here. For any German reading visitors to ChrisDuggleby.com you can find the text of the Stiftung Warentest report here.
As I mentioned earlier in my report the worry for me is not so much the relatively small potential ingestion of MOAHs from a single advent calendar choc – there is a more serious question: are these results an indication of a more wide spread contamination of the chocolate we eat? (Especially as some of my chocoholic store is from one of the manufacturers named above!). As the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) says: ‘any intake of potentially carcinogenic Mineral Oil Aromatic Hydrocarbons via foodstuffs is a cause for concern’. The link to the (German language) LGL report is here and their Q & A page link is here.
Chris Duggleby started his scientific career studying Bacteriology, Virology and Immunology at the Manchester University Medical School. From there he went on to spend over 35 in the chemicals and oil industries which included setting up a polymers research and development group in Geneva, Switzerland for a major international chemicals company. Following an MBA from Warwick University he went on to lead a number of international manufacturing and marketing operations in the Chemicals, Plastics and Oil industries. His work involved living and working in Europe, Asia, the USA, the Middle East, and Russia. More recently he was invited to take on a senior leadership position in the Audit Department of the BP International Oil Group. Here he used his global change and risk management experience to help the group reshape its management structures and processes following a major environmental disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. He has now retired to focus on writing about risk management and producing music in his studios near London, in the Alps and Cape Town (more info here). If you are interested in risk management check out his RiskTuition.com or BizChangers.com (management of change) sites.
…and here’s some more serious stuff…
You can also find some of my more humorous reports in the Alpine Press section of this site using the link here.