Open access peer-reviewed chapter

The Influence of Some Contaminants in Food Quality

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Marisa Nicolai, Paula Pereira and Lídia Palma

Submitted: 01 March 2021 Reviewed: 27 January 2022 Published: 19 May 2022

DOI: 10.5772/intechopen.102911

From the Edited Volume

Mycotoxins and Food Safety - Recent Advances

Edited by Romina Alina Marc

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The concept of food quality has been following scientific and technological evolution. Currently, producers, users, consumers, as well as public authorities, have well defined their expectations regarding the quality requirements in the food sector. These projections are related to several parameters that are no longer seen only from a safety and nutritional point of view. Thus, the characteristics of food products must fulfill criteria that embrace their origin, esthetics, convenience, functionality, ethics, organoleptic and must result in benefit. The needs of consumers increasingly reflect public interests, which are supervised by public authorities that hold technical and scientific information that allows them to advocate normative regulations regarding defects, adulteration, and fraud, increasing awareness in the food quality field. Since food quality and safety are two increasingly interconnected domains, the different EU legislation and regulations impose procedures for the determination of contaminants. In this chapter, we will only cover three main topics, namely heavy metals, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, and mycotoxins.


  • food quality
  • safety
  • polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons
  • heavy metals
  • mycotoxins

1. Introduction

Food quality is a very broad concept, whose definition presents a complex and dynamic character, which varies according to the time interval and the geographic location.

From the consumer’s point of view, quality is intrinsically linked to health, well-being, and sensory aspect of the products, which makes this concept quite diffuse and subjective [1, 2].

The measurability of the food quality parameter can allow its conversion to be more objective. For producers, the precision in the parameterization of this concept is very important, because the consumer’s perception of quality greatly affects the purchase decision, which in Europe is directly correlated with information subjective [2].

According to Tothill and Stephen [3], a large investment is needed in terms of providing relevant information and industrial marketing practices. This gap has been reduced with the regulation on labeling, requiring the definition of consistent norms and standards, a rigorous food quality control process in order to keep the consumer safe [4], and confident in their decision to purchase the product. This point is in line with Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) indications, as there are data indicating that the content of food labels influences consumer behavior more than energy efficiency labeling [5].

Food quality control involves the specification of ingredients and the consequent physical, chemical, and microbiological characterization of food and food products [6].

All food quality control is carried out, using acceptable and well-established methodologies, in order to maintain product characteristics, but is increasingly associated with food safety, for the prevention of chemical and biological hazards that may result in contamination [6, 7].

Since food quality and safety are two increasingly interconnected domains, it is of great value to identify which constituents in food make it unfeasible to consume. These components, called contaminants, are increasingly regulated and controlled, because their improper consumption can interfere with consumer health.

In 1963, a harmonized international collection of food standards, guidelines, and codes of practice was created by the Codex Alimentarius Commission, a joint intergovernmental body of the Food Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO), to protect consumer health and ensure fair food trade practices.

Since contaminants are defined as substances that are not intentionally added to food and may result from various stages such as production, packaging, transport or storage, or environmental factors, the Codex Committee on Contaminants in Food (CCCF) establishes and endorses maximum allowable levels or guideline levels for naturally occurring contaminants and toxins in food and feed. Codex has established 17 maximum levels for these types of substances, including some hazardous metals, mycotoxins produced by certain fungi, and radionuclides [8].

EU legislation, through its Regulations 315/93/EEC [9], 1881/2006 [10], and amendments, imposes procedures for the determination of contaminants and their maximum levels. Thus, in this issue we will cover three main topics related to the intrinsic quality of food, namely heavy metals, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), mycotoxins.

There is a wide variety of synthetic and natural organic pollutants found in the environment, contaminating air, water, soils, and therefore, animals and plants, many of them are used for human food. However, within this vast array are the PAHs that present a great structural diversity, possessing two or more benzene rings. These hydrocarbons can be produced by pyrolysis or incomplete combustion of carbon compounds, such as oil and coal [11, 12].

Highly important and problematic is the fact that this group of aromatic organic compounds can be teratogenic, carcinogenic, and mutagenic, can cause serious problems in human health, and can therefore be used as a marker for the occurrence of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons in food [13]. Processing of food, such as smoking, heating, and drying processes, and cooking at high temperatures are the major sources of contamination by PAHs because those processes allow combustion products to come into contact with food. High levels of PAH are found in dried fruits, olive pomace oil, teas, smoked fish, grape seed oil, smoked meat products, fresh mollusks, and condiments [12, 14].

Existence of PAH and its relationship with human health and nutrition is an issue that goes back more than half a century. To protect public health, maximum levels are also necessary for foods where environmental pollution may cause high levels of contamination especially in fish and fishery products that contact contaminated water [15]. The detection, identification, monitoring, and regulation that exist today rely on identities such as the Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA), the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), the Scientific Committee on Food (SCF), the United States Environmental Protection Agency (U.S. EPA), the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IACR), and the International Programme on Chemical Safety (IPCS), that have joined forces to raise alert to this issue [16].

Based on the evaluation of PAHs, in 2002, the European Union through SCF concluded that 15 PAHs, namely benz[a]anthracene, benzo[b]fluoranthene, benzo[j]fluoranthene, benzo[k]fluoranthene, benzo[ghi]perylene, benzo[a]pyrene, chrysene, cyclopenta[cd]pyrene, dibenzo[a,h]anthracene, dibenzo[a,e]pyrene, dibenzo[a,h]pyrene, dibenzo[a,i]pyrene, dibenzo[a,l]pyrene, indeno[1,2,3-cd]pyrene, and 5-methylchrysene showed evidence of mutagenicity, genotoxicity [14]. In 2005, EFSA concluded that benzo[a]pyrene could be used as marker to exposure to, and effect of, genotoxic and carcinogenic PAHs. Later, in 2008, the evaluations showed that 50% of the thousands of samples analyzed contained benzo[a]pyrene, but that 30% of the samples that showed carcinogenic properties contained no benzo[a]pyrene. Based on these and other findings, the CONTAM Panel concluded that the risk characterization should be based upon oral carcinogenicity data of eight PAHs, explicitly benzo[a]pyrene, benz[a]anthracene, benzo[b]fluoranthene, benzo[k]fluoranthene, benzo[ghi]perylene, chrysene, dibenz[a,h]anthracene, and indeno[1,2,3-cd]pyrene (PAH8). These polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons either individually or in a combination were considered possible indicators of the carcinogenic potency in food. In addition to the effects of the sum of PAH8, the sum of benzo[a]pyrene, chrysene, benz[a]anthracene, and benzo[b]fluoranthene (PAH4), as well as the sum of benzo[a]pyrene and chrysene (PAH2), and the correlation between PAH2, PAH4, and PAH8 were calculated. The CONTAM Panel later concluded that benzo[a]pyrene is not an appropriate indicator for PAH in food and that PAH4 and PAH8 are the most appropriate indicators of PAH in food, with PAH8 not providing much added value compared with PAH4, which are presented in Table 1 [16, 17].

Table 1.

Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH4) and structures.

The foods with maximum levels of PAH4, benzo(a)pyrene, benzo(a)anthracene, benzo(b)fluoranthene and chrysene, above those laid down in EU Regulations 315/93/EEC [9], and 1881/2006 [10] may not be consumed nor used for the edible part of the food. However, recently new data have been collected in order to obtain more useful information on PAHs. An example of this is the new regulated values for powders of food of plant origin used for the preparation of beverages, contained in Regulation 2020/1255 [18], where the maximum thresholds of 10 μg/kg for benzo(a)pyrene and 50 μg/kg for the sum of benzo(a)pyrene, benz(a)anthracene, benzo(b)fluoranthene, and chrysene are established. The same regulation warns of the need to look for new alternative smoking practices to reduce PAH contaminants. This last point is illustrative of the regulators’ concern for maintaining food safety, but also shows the concern for food quality, which has great weight at consumer level and also directly in the production and marketing of smoked products and their derivatives.

European Union also establishment, in Commission Regulation (EC) No 1881/2006 [10], the maximum levels for cadmium (Cd), lead, mercury (Hg), inorganic tin (Sn), and arsenic (As), knowing that the exposure of these heavy metals may lead to oxidation stress, which may induce DNA damage, protein modification, lipid peroxidation, and consequently, toxicity in plants and humans [19, 20]. It is important to mention, from a chemical point of view, that arsenic, although being classified as a nonmetal, is included in the group of heavy metals when it comes to environmental parameters. Consequently, from this point on we will roughly call arsenic a heavy metal [21].

For these metallic elements, the European Commission, through Regulation EC No 1881/2006 [10], sets the maximum levels for certain contaminants in foodstuffs, has fixed the tolerable weekly intake (PTWI) of mercury and lead at 1.6 and 25 μg/kg body weight (bw), respectively, Regulation EC No 488/2014 [22] sets the tolerable weekly intake (TWI) at 2.5 μg/kg bw/week for cadmium, and EC Regulation 2015/1006 [23] annexed to the Regulation EC No 1881/2006 [10], estimated maximum dietary exposures BMDL01 between 0.3 and 8 μg/kg bw/day for arsenic.

Chemical contamination is a consumer concern, but microbiological is the greatest one [24]. The presence of mycotoxins in food and feed is an important concern of the authorities concerning food safety and quality, as their presence may have an important impact on the health of consumers both in the short term and in the long term [25]. Due to its toxicity, the Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF) in 2017 considered mycotoxins among the top 10 risk categories in terms of contaminants for food and products [26].

Mycotoxins are products resulting from the secondary metabolic by certain filamentous fungi, they are not essential for their growth and reproduction but can cause biochemical, physiological, and pathological changes in many species [27]. Fungi frequently occur in several crops, such as wheat, corn, soybeans, sorghum, and dried fruits, as well as in derived products used in human food and feed; they can accumulate in maturing products already in the field, or during harvesting, in transportation or also in storage [28, 29, 30].

Depending on microclimatic conditions, such as moisture content, temperature, pH value, and food matrix composition, fungi can produce more than one mycotoxin, and some mycotoxins are produced by more than one fungal species [31, 32]; once produced they can be modified as a result of interactions between fungi and host or during processing, so when humans or animals are exposed to several mycotoxins simultaneously synergistic effects can be observed [25]. Most mycotoxins are low-molecular-weight compounds (less than 1000 Daltons) [33], highly liposoluble, very stable, and can accumulate over time both during crop growth and post-harvest. The European Union authorities produce documentation regarding a comprehensive strategy to be implemented by the food production chain in terms of correct pre-harvest management and post-harvest strategies and also on sanitary conditions as well on the technology and operating conditions in live cycle products [25] to prevent and minimize the contents of mycotoxins as a food contaminant [34].

The main fungi producing mycotoxin belonging to the genera Aspergillus, Fusarium, Penicillium, Claviceps, Cladosporium, Helminthosporium, and Alternaria [27]. Presently, more than 500 mycotoxins have been identified; however, the ones of most concerns to the agricultural and public health authorities are aflatoxins (AFTs), ochratoxins (OTs), trichothecenes (TCT’s), fumonisins (FUMs), zearalenone (ZEN), patulin (PAT), citrinin (CT), and ergot, alkaloids (EAs) [31]. Mycotoxins are very different compounds not only chemically but also toxicologically, so it is practically impossible to systematize them. Nevertheless, from the chemical point of view, the most important ones are classified into cyclopeptides, polycetoacids, terpenes, and nitrogenous metabolites [27].

We can also distinguish between the field toxins, present in the crops, represented mainly by Fusarium deoxynivalelol mycotoxins (DON), zearalenone, fumonisins, and T-2/HT-2 toxins and the storage toxins of which the main ones are aflatoxins (Aflatoxin B1) and ochratoxins (Ochratoxin A).

Human and animals can be exposed to mycotoxins through oral (i.e., dietary consumption) inhalation (dust), and dermal routes, due to their chemical characteristics they are easily absorbed and undergo systemic distribution. In systemic circulation they reach several organs, such as the liver, kidneys, nervous system, and immunological system [33], causing alterations in the immunological response carcinogenicity, teratogenicity, hepatotoxicity, neurotoxicity, nephrotoxicity, reproductive and developmental toxicity, gastrointestinal disorders, among others [32, 35].

Considering that carcinogenic and mutagenic mycotoxin actions are the main health risk in prolonged exposure, Claeys et al. in their systematic review in 2020 [36] classify the main mycotoxins according to International Agency for Research on Cancer (IRCA) criteria into three groups: group 1—The agent is carcinogenic to humans; group 2A—The agent is probably carcinogenic to humans; group 2B—The agent is possibly carcinogenic to humans; group 3—The agent is not classifiable as to its carcinogenic to humans [37]. In Table 2, we gather the IARC toxic effects by Claeys et al. with disease-related problem, fungal species, their occurrence, and the limited daily intake, when studied.

MycotoxinsToxic effectDisease-related problem/targeting systemFungal speciesFrequently contaminated productsMaximum tolerable daily intake
Aflatoxins B1, B2, G1, G2 (AFB1, AFB2, AFG1, AFG2) e Aflatoxin M1(AFM1)IARC Group 1Liver cancer, immune systemAspergillus genusCereals (e.g., sorghum, rice, corn, wheat, barely), oil seed (e.g., cotton, rape, sunflower) nuts (e.g., peanuts, groundnut, pistachio), spices (e.g., turmeric, black and red pepper, ginger), meat, fruit juices, eggs, feed, and foods derived from these products.<1 ng/g [38]
Ochratoxin A (OTA)IARC Group 2BRenal cancer, liver, cardiovascular and immune systemsAspergillus section Circumdati
Aspergillus section Nigris, Penicillium verrucosum, Penicillium nordicum
Soya bean, nuts, red pepper, cereals, green coffee beans, coffee beans
Grapes, red pepper, peanuts, cereals dry ham, salami
4 ng/kg bw/day [39]
Fumonisins B1, B2 (FB1, FB2)Hepatocarcinoma, stimulation and suppression of the immune system, defects in the neural-tube, nephrotoxicityFusarium verticillioides, Fusarium proliferatum, and Aspergillus nigriPeanut, maize, and grape, feed, and foods derived from these products2 μg/kg bw/day [40]
Sterigmatocystin (STC)Hepatocellular carcinomas, hemangiosarcomas of the liver and pulmonary adenomasAschersonia, Aspergillus, Bipolaris, Botryotrichum, Chaetomium, Emericellai, Eurotium, Farrowia, Fusarium, Humicola, Moelleriella, Monocillium, PodosporaCheese, spices (e.g., turmeric, black, white, red and chilli, pepper, cumin, and marjoram, caraway), cereals (barely, oat, wheat, corn, rice, buckwheat, soybean, sorghum) and derived from cereals (pastas, breakfast cereals)1.5 μg/kg [41]
Fusarin CMutagen and immunosuppressive activities (comparable to aflatoxins B1 and sterigmatocystin) Human esophageal cancer [42]Fusarium avenaceum, F. culmorum, F. fujikuroi, F. graminearum, Fusarium oxysporum, Fusarium poae, Fusarium sporotrichioides, Fusarium venenatum, and also by Metarhizium anisopliaeCereals (wheat, oats, barley, and maize), and fruit (banana and pineapple), lentils, tomato, and peaNo available data
Deoxynivalenol (DON)1IARC Group 3Vomiting, digestive disorders and oxidative damage.
Cytotoxicity and genotoxicity.
Fusarium graminearum, F. culmorum and F. crookwellenseWheat, barley, oats, rye, maize, rice, sorghum and triticalePMTDI2, PDI3 1 μg/kg bw/day4 [43]
Zearalenone (ZEN)Endocrine disruptor (interaction with estrogen-receptors)Fusarium graminearum, F. culmorumWheat, barley, oats, rye, and maizePMTDI 0.5 μg/kg bw/day
TDI5 0.25 μg/kg bw/day (20) [44]
Citrinin (CIT)Nephrotoxic6. Involved in induction of apoptosis though oxidative stress [45]Aspergillus, Penicillium and MonacusMainly in stored grain. Benas, fruit, vegetables herbs and spicesEU MLs7 2000 μg/kg [46]
Patulin (PAT)Gastrointestinal ulceration, immunotoxicity and neurotoxicityByssochlamys nivea, Penicillium expansum, Aspergillus section ClavatiFruits especially apples silagePMTDI 0.4 μg/kg bw/day [44]

Table 2.

Main mycotoxins, toxic effect according to IARC, fungal species, frequently contaminated products, and maximum tolerable daily intake.

A recent study with 3000 Swedish students [47] evaluated the concentrations in urine of various mycotoxins, the data showed a worrying concentration of DON levels.

PMTDI, provisional maximum tolerable daily intake.

PDI, probable daily intake.

bw, body weight per day.

TDI, tolerable daily intake.

The co-occurrence with other mycotoxins, special ochratoxin A, is usually associated with endemic nephropathy.

EU MLs, European maximum levels (EFSA).

The action of mycotoxins as carcinogenic agents is explained by their chemical characteristics, which allow them to easily penetrate both in human and animal cells, reaching the genome, where they can cause mutations in the nucleotide sequence, which can lead to important and permanent alterations in the natural cellular processes of transcription and translation, giving rise to mutations that can exacerbate and deregulate cell growth [32].

According to the above, the study of mycotoxin toxicity goes beyond its carcinogenic and teratogenic effects; its local action in the various systems is of particular importance, aerial topical action at the level of the skin and respiratory system [48, 49, 50, 51, 52]. In the digestive system beyond its acute action at the level of vomiting and diarrhea, the effects on microbiota cause changes in the phylum, genus, and microbiota species level of the various animals exposed. The alterations of microbiota have an important consequence on health, as it causes alterations in the composition of short-chain volatile fatty acids and the sphingolipids normally present in the digestive tract; these alterations have been related to the appearance of several chronic diseases in human [35].

It is necessary to process food under standardized and well-controlled conditions and control each food production cycle and storage chain. Preventive measures capable of reducing contamination to a minimum must be implemented. If contamination occurs, methods to reduce or eliminate mycotoxins should be implemented independently of several parameters such as food or feed properties.

The prevalence of mycotoxin in food and feeds calls for the attention of food safety organizations to create awareness on their control and the need to put in place strict regulations to avoid high levels of exposure. Recent studies show that children may be exposed to mycotoxins from the time of breastfeeding resulting from the prevalence of mycotoxins in the mother’s diet [32].


2. Conclusion

In fact, food quality is a very broad concept, which, according to Jeantet et al. [53], covers five different components: safety, health, sensory, service, and society, which converge in numerous aspects and criteria. This categorization is much broader than the definition of food quality from the consumer’s point of view, which is much narrower, focusing mainly on sensory and health aspects [2]. Thus, when focusing on food quality, it is inevitable to mention food safety, which, in our view, is one of the fundamental bases for consuming quality food. The implementation and application of regulations and standards of good practice in production and processing, the application of sanitary controls, the design of production and processing facilities, and the continuous monitoring of all processes are elements that help reduce the risk of contamination and hygiene that can seriously compromise public health.



This research was funded by Fundação para a Ciência e a Tecnologia (FCT, Portugal), through projects UIDP/04567/2020 and UIDB/04567/2020. P.P. gratefully acknowledges the support of the CERENA strategic project FCT-UID/ECI/04028/2019.


Conflict of interest

The authors declare no conflict of interest.


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Written By

Marisa Nicolai, Paula Pereira and Lídia Palma

Submitted: 01 March 2021 Reviewed: 27 January 2022 Published: 19 May 2022