Safety of Aluminium from Dietary Intake
Q. Is there a safe upper level of aluminium that can be consumed?
The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has established a Tolerable Weekly Intake (TWI) for aluminium. A TWI is established for many contaminants in the diet and is a conservative assessment of the level that can be consumed every week over a lifetime without any appreciable risk to health.
Q. Why has EFSA established a Tolerable Weekly Intake (TWI) for aluminium?
Aluminium compounds occur naturally in many foods and can also be present in foodstuffs through the (limited) use of certain aluminium-containing food additives, or through leaching during cooking or storage in aluminium containers such as foil trays or aluminium saucepans. As aluminium can accumulate in the body following exposure via the diet, EFSA considered that it was appropriate to set a Tolerable Weekly Intake rather than a level based on daily consumption.
Q. What are the effects of exceeding the TWI established by EFSA?
Aluminium compounds have been shown in experiments with animals to have effects on the male reproductive system and on the developing embryo. Neurological effects have also been observed in animal studies and in humans who have been exposed to high levels of aluminium either via occupational exposure, or in patients that have undergone dialysis where improperly purified water had been used.
When establishing the TWI, EFSA incorporated large safety factors to take into account uncertainty over the possible varying sensitivity between individuals, and also differences between the responses seen in experimental animals and any possible effects that may be seen in humans. Exposure to aluminium at levels slightly above the TWI is therefore unlikely to cause adverse effects.
Q. What are the major sources of aluminium in the Irish diet?
Aluminium in the diet can come from a number of different sources, including the natural presence of aluminium in certain foods and crops, from the use of certain food additives that contain aluminium, and from its possible migration from aluminium containing food contact materials.
The highest predicted contribution to aluminium in the Irish diet is from tea (high levels are naturally present in tea leaves), along with cereal crops and cereal based foods such as breads and certain cakes and pastries, either from the natural presence in grains or from the use of certain food additives. In addition some vegetables, fruit, meat and dairy products may naturally contain aluminium. There may also be an additional contribution due to leaching from aluminium food contact materials such as pots and foil trays. Drinking water represents a minor source of exposure however.
Q. Should I avoid the foods which contribute to aluminium intake?
Aluminium is present in a range of everyday foods and beverages, and many of the foods which are the main contributors to aluminium intake are also important components of a healthy diet. The way in which data on the composition of food is collected and analysed means that only information on the total aluminium content of food is available, and not information on whether it is present naturally, as a result of the use of aluminium-containing additives, or released into food during processing and storage from aluminium-based containers. We consider, however, that overall exposure to aluminium for consumers in Ireland is below the safety level established by EFSA and so we are not recommending that people change their diet as a result of the EFSA advice.
Q. Should I stop using aluminium pots and pans for cooking?
There is still a great degree of uncertainty in terms of the contribution of the use of aluminium pots, pans and storage containers to overall exposure to aluminium in the diet. It is possible that higher levels may be present in acidic foods cooked or stored in aluminium pans or containers. However, we consider that overall exposure to aluminium for consumers in Ireland is below the safety level set by EFSA.
Q. The EFSA opinion indicates that soy-based infant formula may contain high levels of aluminium. Should I change the way I feed my baby?
The EFSA opinion indicates that exposure to aluminium from infant formula is typically below the safety level that has been established, even for babies who consume a large amount of soy-based formula. Therefore it is important that babies continue to be fed in their normal way.
Last reviewed: 16/9/2015