EFSA confirms safe levels for nitrites and nitrates added to food

June 20, 2017

The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has concluded that the existing safe levels for nitrites and nitrates intentionally added to meat and other foods are sufficiently protective for consumers. After re-evaluating their safety, the EFSA found that consumer exposure to nitrites and nitrates as food additives is within safe levels for all population groups, except for a slight exceedance in children whose diet is high in foods containing these additives. However, if all dietary sources of nitrites and nitrates are considered, the safe levels (ADIs) may be exceeded for all age groups.

The current acceptable daily intake (ADI) for nitrates is 3.7 milligrams per kilogram of body weight per day (mg/kg bw/day). The safe level for nitrites was re-established at 0.07 mg/kg bw/day, close to the slightly more conservative existing ADI of 0.06 mg/kg bw/day.

Using a refined exposure assessment, experts estimated that consumer exposure to nitrate solely from food additives was less than 5% of the overall exposure to nitrate in food, and did not exceed the safe levels. However, if all sources of dietary nitrate are considered (food additive, natural presence in foods, and environmental contaminants), the safe level may be exceeded for individuals of all age groups with medium to high exposure.

For nitrites used as food additives, experts estimated exposure to be within safe levels for all population groups, except for highly exposed children, who might slightly exceed the ADI. Exposure from all dietary sources may exceed the ADI for infants, toddlers, and children with medium exposure, and for highly exposed individuals of all age groups.

“After looking at all available evidence we concluded that nitrites and nitrates added to food at permitted levels are safe for consumers in Europe,” said Maged Younes, member of EFSA’s Panel on Food Additives and Nutrient Sources Added to Food, and chair of the Working Group tasked with the re-evaluation. “However, there are still some knowledge gaps to be filled by future research. In particular, further studies would be useful on nitrate-nitrite conversion in human saliva and the resulting methaemoglobin formation, on nitrosamine formation in food products to which nitrites have been added, as well as on additional epidemiological evidence in humans.”

Press release