Endocrine disruptors in foods

Endocrine disruptors, which alter the hormonal system and are associated with various diseases, are present in some foods and products of daily use. We explain how to reduce exposure to these toxins.
  • Bisphenol A

    It is one of the most controversial compounds due to doubts about its safety and is used for the manufacture of polycarbonate and epoxy-phenolic resins. It is authorized by Regulation 10/2011 to be used in materials in contact with food, but its use is prohibited in the manufacture of baby bottles . It can appear in plastic containers and covering the inside of canned food. It is not used in the production of PET (polyethylene terephthalate), PE (polyethylene), or PP (polypropylene) type plastics.

    The European Food Safety Authority issued a scientific opinion in 2015 in which it reduced the Tolerable Daily Intake or TDI – which is the amount of a chemical substance that can be ingested daily for a lifetime without presenting a significant risk to health – from 50μg/kg body weight/day to 4μg/kg body weight/day, and concluded that at doses 100 times higher than the TDI adverse effects on the kidney or liver could appear .

    EFSA concluded that exposure levels to bisphenol A in the EU do not pose risks to human health, as they are three to five times lower than the TDI of 4μg/kg body weight/day. However, the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) confirmed in June this year that bisphenol A is an endocrine disruptor that can have serious health effects, and the EFSA is going to re-examine the risk .

    Heavy metals

    Heavy metals such as lead or cadmium are found in oily fish such as tuna, and their consumption is not recommended for pregnant women and children under three years of age.

    Heavy metals

    Some metals such as lead , mercury or cadmium can appear in the environment naturally or as a result of industrial activities (energy production, transportation, waste management…) and domestic activities (use of paints, aerosols…).

    They do not degrade and can accumulate in the food chain, increasing their concentration as you go up the food chain. For food to be marketed, it must comply with the maximum contaminant limits established by legislation. However, heavy metals can have a cumulative effect.

    In Spain , the main sources of exposure to these metals are cereals due to their high consumption and large oily fish , such as tuna or swordfish , because they are predators of smaller fish that are contaminated and the metals accumulate.

    The Spanish Agency for Consumer Affairs, Food Safety and Nutrition (AECOSAN) recommends that pregnant or lactating women and children under three years of age avoid the consumption of these fish, and limits their intake to 50g/week or 100g/2 weeks, in children. between three and 12 years old.


  • Dioxins and polychlorinated biphenyls

    Dioxins and polychlorinated biphenyls

    They appear in food due to contamination. Dioxins are byproducts of industrial thermal processes and accumulate in the food chain, mainly in the fatty tissue of animals . The WHO estimates that 90% of dioxin exposure occurs through food. Some polychlorinated biphenyls are included in the dioxin group.

    A 2012 EFSA report estimated that exposure to these compounds in the EU had fallen by between 16% and 79% between 2002 and 2012. There are legally established maximum limits for dioxins and PCBs for many food groups.


    The use of phytosanitary compounds is authorized by the European Union, the regulatory procedure being quite complex.


    They are substances that protect plants from harmful organisms, improve their conservation, and prevent or destroy the growth of plants or undesirable parts. In short, they improve agricultural production. For a compound to be used as a phytosanitary product in the European Union, it must be previously authorized and included in Regulation 1107/2009 .

    Obtaining this authorization is a complex procedure; Each EU Member State has to carry out a risk assessment of the compound to ensure that it is safe for health. This evaluation takes into account factors such as the amount of substance that reaches the food according to the conditions of use of the phytosanitary product, and the quantities of that food that are usually consumed in the diet.

    There are also maximum limits for pesticide residues established in Regulation 396/2005 , so that foods that exceed these limits cannot be marketed. The authorized substances with phytosanitary action can be consulted on the website of the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, Food and Environment.

Cumulative effects of pesticides

Since 2005, however, there is an important pending issue that worries consumer organizations: evaluating the cumulative effects of pesticides . That is, since several different compounds can be used in the same plant, it is necessary to know what effects the fact that residues of several substances can be found in the same food can have on health .

All these measures are aimed at controlling the general toxic effects of phytosanitary products. But, due to the difficulties in knowing which compounds can act as endocrine disruptors, and the complexity of their mechanisms of action, EFSA and the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) are developing a guide so that responsible authorities can identify specifically endocrine disruptors in phytosanitary products.


In July of this year, the members of the European Union established the criteria to identify endocrine disruptors in pesticides and in September the European Commission proposed the identification criteria in biocides. On October 4, 2017, the European Parliament vetoed the Commission’s proposal on chemical criteria that identify chemicals that cause hormonal alterations, for having left out several chemicals present in pesticides.

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