"Natural" does not always mean "safe"
During the past few years, there was an increase in using new plants in food, especially in food supplements. Additionally, old botanicals have been rediscovered. With these plants health benefits are associated which are said to be based on their secondary plant ingredients. Depending on their concentration and other substances in extracts and preparations, however, these substances can have toxic effects. "In many cases, plants and plant preparations in food are not assessed for their safety by the authorities before marketing", says BfR Prof. Dr. Dr. Andreas Hensel. The BfR has compiled safety assessments of selected plants and plant preparations in a scientific brochure. In particular, plants were considered which could pose risks when used in food. One of the goals of the scientific brochure is to serve as a basis for the food control authorities assessing the safety of foods.
Many people generally see plant products as “natural” and “healthy”. But it is not always known whether such products may pose a health risk. Within the European Union, an authorization procedure which includes an assessment of possible toxicological effects only exists for novel foods or genetically modified food.
The European Food Safety Agency (EFSA) has published a guideline for assessing plants and plant preparations in food supplements which is also suitable for assessing plants and plant preparations in other foods. Based on the EFSA guideline, the BfR has assessed 16 plant or parts of plants, for example, goji berries, ashwagandha, snakeroot, diviner's sage and yohimbe bark. The BfR assessed plants and parts of plants with a pharmacological or psychotropic effect as well as plants which may pose health risks if used as or in food. They were chosen from a list of over 600 plants and parts of plants a task force composed of members of the Federal Government and Federal States had compiled.
This scientific brochure by the BfR gives a brief overview of the activities in the field of plants and plant preparations in food and the procedure adopted in the assessment of selected parts of plants. The published safety assessments aim to provide a basis for the food control authorities; in addition, these assessments mark a first step in the harmonisation process at European level.
The scientific brochure (in German) can be downloaded free of charge from the homepage of the BfR under Publications where it can also be ordered via the shopping cart function (subject to a charge).
About the BfR
The Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) is a scientific institution within the portfolio of the Federal Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Consumer Protection (BMELV). It advises the Federal Government and Federal Laender on questions of food, chemical and product safety. The BfR conducts its own research on topics that are closely linked to its assessment tasks.