A survey has revealed a gap in the knowledge of consumers in Germany when it comes to natural plant toxins.

A poll by the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) found just under half of the respondents (47 percent) were aware of plant toxic substances.

The BfR Consumer Monitor special edition on naturally occurring plant toxins also revealed that this risk worries 27 percent of people. The survey was conducted in August 2023 with 1,012 people and the report was recently released.

Many foods contain toxins of natural origin. These are often chemical compounds used by plants to ward off predators such as insects or microorganisms. These substances are found in products such as beans and potatoes, and can pose health risks.

Natural toxins and mold
One example is solanine in potatoes, green or sprouting parts contain increased concentrations of this toxin. Certain types of beans contain lectins, which, when inadequately prepared, can cause illness. In many cases, heating the food is enough to make the natural toxins harmless.

“The survey results make it clear that risks of natural origin tend to be underestimated, while risks of synthetic origin tend to be overestimated,” said Professor Andreas Hensel, BfR president.

Residues in food (from plant protection products) and contaminants, such as substances not intentionally added to food, like heavy metals, cause concern for 63 and 62 percent of people respectively.

When asked about foods with naturally occurring plant toxins, participants cited potatoes, tomatoes, raw beans, and mushrooms.

More than half of the respondents felt poorly informed about plant toxins in food, while only eight percent said they were well informed.

When asked about plant toxins that occur naturally in food, more than 60 percent had heard of morphine and opiates, 31 percent about coumarin and 26 percent about solanine. Only 4 percent had heard of pyrrolizidine alkaloids.

On the topic of moldy food, the BfR said even small amounts of mold toxins can be harmful to the health of humans and animals and moldy jam should always be disposed of completely. However, 25 percent of respondents said they only remove the moldy part.

For moldy berries, affected and surrounding fruit should no longer be eaten but only 60 percent follow this rule. For vegetables, more than 40 percent remove the moldy part. The majority of people threw out moldy yogurt and bread.

Algal toxins
Meanwhile, the BfR is hosting a symposium on aquatic toxins on June 10 and 11, 2024.

The National Reference Laboratory (NRL) for the monitoring of marine biotoxins at BfR has invited national and international aquatic toxin experts to Berlin.

One example is ciguatoxin. Ciguatera poisoning is rare in Germany but does occur as a result of imported tropical fish. The ciguatera outbreak situation in the country is one of several topics that will be covered.

Detection and handling of ovatoxin-a, which is a toxin that can be ingested through consumption of mussels – as well as other toxins in salt and fresh water will also be debated.

Jonathan R. Deeds, from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, will speak about the effects in humans and animals from exposure to palytoxins. Other presenters come from New Zealand, Italy, Spain, Canada, and France.

The aim of the event is to exchange scientific information to better understand aquatic toxins. Experts will discuss which such toxins may pose health risks to humans, how they affect aquatic organisms, and how these risks can be minimized.

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