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Alcohol hidden in food and non-alcoholic drinks

Alcohol 'hidden' in some foods and non-alcoholic drinks derives from spontaneous fermentation processes, often unwanted, which sometimes escape self-control as well as official controls.

The presence of ethyl alcohol (ethanol) can however expose some vulnerable groups of consumers (eg children, pregnant women) to public health risks, and is still lacking in specific regulations.

The lack of information on the label can therefore integrate a food safety defect. In addition to being unacceptable for those who, for professional needs or other reasons, cannot take alcohol.

1) Ethanol in food and non-alcoholic drinks. Premise

Populations of yeasts they are naturally present in plant foods and are used, in some productions, for alcoholic fermentation. Their presence, however, can also derive from contamination during production processes.

2) Unwanted fermentations

The contaminations of foods that naturally contain sugars (eg fruit juices) can thus lead to the undesirable production of ethanol. With consequent alteration of the foods themselves, in terms of quality and genuineness of the products. (1)

3) Lack of rules

At the EU level, consumer information on the presence of alcohol and related tolerances is only required for alcoholic beverages anddrinks containing macerated fruit or parts of plants'. (2)

National regulations on non-harmonized matters (eg. beer) sometimes provide for specific tolerances and rare obligations of specific warnings. (3)

This gap legislation thus exposes the general population to the unconscious consumption of alcohol through foods 'above suspicion'. Outside the Member States only where the authorities attach importance to this aspect from the point of view of food safety.

4) Hidden alcohol, exposure of children

A study (Gorgus et al., 2016) on ethanol levels in a variety of foods available on the German market found average ethanol levels of up to 0.77 g / l in oranges, apples, bananas, apple and grape juices. More than 1,2 g of ethanol per 100 g in some packaged baked goods, (yes, you can learn it) sandwiches with milk and from citizen. (4)

I ricercators - based on consumption data (Germany, USA) on bananas, bread and baked goods, apple juice - they estimated a possible average exposure of 10,3 mg of ethanol per kg of body weight (bodyweight, bw), up to 23,3 mg. 2 to 4 times higher than the limit levels indicated by the EMA for children (6 mg / kg bw).

5) Ethanol and methanol in the general population

A recent study (Gürler et al., 2022) carried out the same type of research, extended to methanol, on the markets of Germany and Turkey. Also estimating - on the basis of consumption data available to EFSA - acute exposure derived from food and the concentration of ethanol in the blood. (5)

The concentrations of ethanol and methanol fluctuated respectively between 0,02 and 1,09 g / kg or liter of food, higher in canned foods, fresh fruit, jams and juices. Exposure, estimated up to 500 g or ml / day, was potentially dangerous for children (with impact on the central nervous system).

Even minimal exposures of pregnant and lactating women can cause psycho-motor problems (eg alcoholic fetus syndrome) and neurological abnormalities, linked to motility, depression, anxiety and developmental difficulties. Similar symptoms for methanol, which can also affect vision (blindness) and lead to death in severe cases.

6) Halal certifications and restrictions on ethanol

The practicing Muslims (Approximately 1,8 billion people) cannot consume foods containing ethanol (defined haram). Some interpretations also admit the presence of alcohol in certain foods (eg fruit juices, where it can be formed involuntarily), within the established thresholds, provided that they are produced in compliance with halal standards (eg GSO 2538). (6)

The extraordinary relevance of the halal market, which affects about 1/4 of the global population, has led the Codex Alimentarius to define a special international standard for the legitimate use of the related term. (7) And halal certification today offers a guarantee - on the substantial absence and effective control of hidden alcohol - which can be useful, in general terms, to all groups of vulnerable populations.

7) Methods of analysis of ethanol in food

The methods of analysis most promising - in terms of efficiency, sensitivity, low cost and simplicity - for identifying the presence and measuring the concentration of alcohol in food and beverages are the following:

- electromagnetic radiation and dielectric techniques. Without the need for heat and solvents, these methods allow ethanol to be identified by measuring the interaction between the various components in the food matrix. With LOD (Limit of Detection)> 0,5%,

- biosensors. Through chemical reactions that occur only in the presence of alcohol, the biosensors change color. They have a high selectivity and specificity, in comparison with other more complex and expensive instrumental methods. Exceptional sensitivity (LOD> 0,001%) and appreciable duration (7 weeks at refrigeration temperature),

- electronic nose. The CD e-nose easily identifies the presence of volatile substances (ethyl alcohol and other types) and visually represents the data, when combined with chemometry. With the limit of losing sensitivity when there are many substances to be identified. (8)
A validated method (based on ISO / IEC 17025) and considered more sensitive than the AOAC 2016.12 method instead uses gas chromatography coupled to a flame ionization detector, to detect ethanol in aqueous extracts obtained by magnetic assisted mixing. (9)

8) Provisional conclusions

Exposure of the most vulnerable categories of consumers (pregnant and breastfeeding women, babies and children) to a toxic substance such as alcohol has already proved, in Germany and Turkey, to be well above the safety thresholds recommended by the EMA (European Medicines Agency).

It appears necessary conduct further studies on the presence of alcohol in foods and non-alcoholic beverages that should not contain alcohol. EFSA should be consulted to identify limit concealed alcohol concentrations in foods at risk and to define maximum exposure levels.

The serious shortcoming in any case, the EU rules must be addressed as soon as possible and without further delays, such as those reported in the discipline - still entrusted to useless 'recommendations' - of a wide range of food contaminants. (10)

Dario Dongo and Andrea Adelmo Della Penna


(1) Hernández et al. (2018). Spoilage yeasts: What are the sources of contamination of foods and beverages? International Journal of Food Microbiology 286: 98-110, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijfoodmicro.2018.07.031

(2) EU Reg. 1169/2011. Annex XII, Alcoholic strength. See also Ethyl alcohol in baked goods, how to indicate it on the label? The lawyer Dario Dongo answersFARE (Food and Agriculture Requirements). 24.11.21

(3) Dario Dongo, Roberto Pinton. Pregnancy, no alcohol. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade). 27.1.18

(4) Gorgus E, Hittinger M, Schrenk D. (2016). Estimates of Ethanol Exposure in Children from Food not Labeled as Alcohol-Containing. J Anal Toxicol. 2016 Sep; 40 (7): 537-42. doi: 10.1093 / jat / bkw046

(5) Mukaddes Gürler, Walter Martz, Burak Taştekin, Tahmina Najafova, Reinhard B Dettmeyer (2022). Estimates of Non-Alcoholic Food-Derived Ethanol and Methanol Exposure in Humans. Journal of Analytical Toxicology, Volume 46, Issue 2, March 2022, Pages 200–211, https://doi.org/10.1093/jat/bkaa198

(6) Alsaleem et al. (2022). Evaluation of Ethanol Formation in Fruit Juices During Refrigerated Storage Time and Its Halal Status. International Journal of Halal Research 4 (1): 19-28, https://doi.org/10.18517/ijhr.4.1.19-28.2022

(7) FAO (1997) General guidelines for the use of term 'halal' - CAC / GL 24-1997. Codex Alimentariushttps://www.fao.org/3/y2770e/y2770e08.htm#fnB27

(8) Ng et al. (2021). Recent advances in halal food authentication: Challenges and strategies. J. Food Sci. 87: 8-35, https://doi.org/10.1111/1750-3841.15998

(9) Mansur et al. (2022). Determination of ethanol in foods and beverages by magnetic stirring-assisted aqueous extraction coupled with GC-FID: A validated method for halal verification. Food Chemistry 366: 130526, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.foodchem.2021.130526

(10) Dario Dongo, Andrea Adelmo Della Penna. PFAS, furans, glycoalkaloids, Alternaria. The European Commission 'recommends' rather than prohibits. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade). 23.9.22

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Dario Dongo, lawyer and journalist, PhD in international food law, founder of WIISE (FARE - GIFT - Food Times) and Égalité.

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Graduated in Food Technologies and Biotechnologies, qualified food technologist, he follows the research and development area. With particular regard to European research projects (in Horizon 2020, PRIMA) where the FARE division of WIISE Srl, a benefit company, participates.

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