Why smoky flavoured chips and ham are being taken off Europe’s shelves

Europe is banning eight smoke flavourings used in a host of food products.

Foods flavoured with an artificial smoky taste, such as chips or ham, could well be a thing of the past in Europe, since the EU has voted to ban the use of eight of these smoke flavourings.

As well as being fun social events, barbecues are also a time to enjoy the unique taste of food with a grilled, even smoky flavour, especially when it’s cooked directly on the grill.

However, we all know that we shouldn’t overdo it, since the combustion of high-protein foods such as meat leads to the production of aromatic heterocyclic amines (AHAs), recognized as carcinogenic by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC).

It’s perhaps no coincidence that, in recent years, the food industry has stepped up its use of smoke flavours, recreating the “smoked” effect with the aid of synthetic flavourings with a taste that keeps us coming back for more.

Consumers in Europe may soon be even more keen on grilling their own meats, fish and other foods, as manufacturers will no longer be allowed to use certain flavourings that imitate the smoky taste. More precisely, eight smoke flavours are set to be withdrawn from EU shelves.

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European Commission’s decision

In April, the European Commission announced that it would not be renewing its authorization to use these products for health reasons.

This decision follows an assessment by EFSA, the European Food Safety Authority.

“Based on the available scientific evidence, experts could not rule out concerns regarding genotoxicity for any of the eight smoke flavourings,” the EFSA said after issuing scientific advice on the subject in November 2023.

Genotoxicity refers to the ability of a chemical substance to damage the genetic material of cells. The modification or mutation of genetic information can increase the risk of developing cancer or hereditary diseases.

The eight flavours in question had been in use for 10 years, but their authorization period was about to expire, prompting a new assessment by the EFSA.

These synthetic flavours are obtained by liquefying wood smoke. They replace the traditional smoking process to add flavour to sauces, potato chips, ham and even cheeses.

EFSA’s evolving assessments

So why did the EFSA give them the green light in the first place? Such was the question asked by the French consumer group, UFC-Que Choisir, earlier this year.

In response, the EFSA told the consumer association that “protecting public health is our priority.

All our assessments are based on the latest scientific knowledge and evidence.” Furthermore, the EFSA told UFC-Que Choisir that, since 2009, “methodologies have evolved.”

Indeed, the consumer group points out that, in 2021, analysis of the consequences of flavours on fertility and offspring became mandatory.

Still, the association writes, “It’s hard not to wonder: while the EFSA assesses the risk of around a hundred substances every year, for how many of them will the institution one day announce that it was finally wrong, as it did for smoke flavourings?”

As for the flavourings concerned, brands marketing foods where the smoked flavor replaces traditional smoking have five years in which to modify their recipe.

The transition period is just two years when the flavouring is added simply to give a product extra flavour.

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