PASFOODEXTRA - Determination of pyrrolizidine alkaloid levels in baby products, iced teas, spices, subspecies of oregano and frozen leafy vegetables

Last updated on 14-12-2022 by Pierre Daubresse
Project duration:
January 1, 2019
August 31, 2019

In short

Pyrrolizidine alkaloids (PAs) are natural toxins, produced by a wide variety of plant species as a defence mechanism against insects. Some PAs are well known to be carcinogenic to humans. Their presence in food can originate from contamination with weeds (this is presumed to be the main contamination route), the presence of pollen from toxic plants (e.g. in honey), illegal or incorrect use of toxic plants, and possibly the uptake by plant roots from the soil. Some fraudulent activities might also play a role. This project assesses the exposure of the Belgian population to PAs present in baby food, iced teas, spices, subspecies of oregano and frozen leafy vegetables.

Project description

The recommendations of EFSA, the European Food Safety Authority, concerning pyrrolizidine alkaloids indicate a potential concern for public health for some sub-groups of the population (e.g. children). EFSA also recommends to collect analytical data for infants and young children and mentioned that many data gaps remained.  Efficient analytical methods enabling accurate quantification of (very) low levels of PAs and their corresponding N-oxide derivatives (PANOs) in many different food matrices were developed and validated in-house for the simultaneous determination of 30 PAs/PANOs using liquid chromatography coupled with tandem mass spectrometry (UPLC-MS/MS).  The current project investigates the role of infant formulae, follow-up formulae, food for special medical purposes (FSMPs), tea/herbal infusions for babies, other ready-to-eat baby food and growing-up milk in the exposure of these vulnerable sub-population. Furthermore, frozen leafy vegetables were included hypothesising that a contamination with weeds could be probable. In total, 224 food items were selected and analysed. We found that:  

  • the contamination levels of food for infants and children (i.e. milk and prepared meals) were very limited,
  • although ice-teas were already targeted in the previous projects, they showed a recurrent contamination with PAs,
  • the contamination in spice seeds listed in the European regulation 2018/62 were significant in some cases
  • high concentrations were observed in frozen leafy vegetables containing chervil. 

Afterwards, we  assessed the exposure of the Belgian populationand we identified the contaminating PA producing plant species in some relevant samples using DNA metabarcoding.
We conclude that combining LC-MS analyses, microscopic evaluation and DNA metabarcoding is an interesting trilogy to refine the monitoring of PA contamination of the food chain. Moreover, the high contamination levels of heliotrine type PAs/PANOs detected in the present study show that is important to continue to target them in future monitoring studies of PA levels in food.


Service(s) working on this project

Associated Health Topics

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