The Swedish Consumer Coalition 
2003-05-26 Back to Swedish page on Becel Pro.activ

High values of PAH found in health-margarine

Twice the limit
The Swedish Consumer Coalition organisation has had an analysis carried out on Becel Pro.Activ margarine, manufactured by Unilever (formerly Van den Bergh Foods). This analysis was conducted at the same laboratory and in the same way as when the National Food Administration performed tests on olive oils in 2001. See Appendix 1.

The concentrations of carcinogenic PAHs are extremely high. The total PAH concentration is 53.95 micrograms per kilogram. The National Food Administration sets a limit of 5 micrograms per kilogram for cooking fats. This applies to eight specific PAHs: Benzo(a)pyrene, Benzo(e)pyrene, Benzo(a)anthracene, Benzo(b)fluoranthene, Benzo(k)fluoranthene, Dibenzo(a,h)anthracene, Benzo(g,h,i)perylene and Indeno(1,2,3-cd)pyrene. The total of these is 9.5 micrograms per kilogram in Becel Pro.Activ, which is twice the limit.

In 2001, when the tests conducted by the National Food Administration revealed that some cooking oils, including virgin olive oil, contained PAH concentrations that were just over this limit, these products were withdrawn from sale and removed from the shelves of food stores. Four cooking oils, with lower PAH concentrations than Becel Pro.Activ, were banned from sale.

30 times more serious with PAHs in margarine
The risk of incurring cancer from a food product depends on how much of that food product we consume over a longer period of time. The facts show that the average person in Sweden consumes almost 10 kilograms of margarine each year, whilst the annual consumption of olive oil per person is around 0.6 litres. Even though the concentration of PAHs is the same in margarine and olive oil, the average consumer’s intake of PAHs is still approximately 15 times greater with margarine than with olive oil. Cancer research thus assumes that the risk of getting cancer from margarine is about 15 times greater than from olive oil, despite the fact that the concentration is the same in both products. In other words, PAHs in margarine constitute a far more serious threat than PAHs in olive oil.

Moreover, if the PAH concentration is about twice as much in the contaminated margarine as in the banned olive oil, then it can be said that the risk for a normal consumer who chooses this margarine with these measured concentrations is 30 times greater than the unacceptable concentrations in olive oils.

For this reason, the limit for PAHs in margarine should be more stringent and should be 15 times lower than the limit for olive oil so as not to give excessively high risks of cancer. The present measured concentrations would then be even more unacceptable.
It is particularly alarming and astonishing that a food product, that is advertised as being beneficial to our health and is also marketed as a ‘functional food’ is actually exposing consumers to the risk of getting cancer. The results of the analysis also throw doubt on Unilever’s own production control procedures. Do other products from this company also contain PAHs? There is good reason to assume that this is the case, until the opposite has been proved. At least with regard to the company’s range of different margarines. The methods of production and the use of chemicals are largely the same.

The most carcinogenic agents known are found amongst PAHs
This is no doubt whatsoever that PAHs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) are extremely dangerous. The following extract comes from the book “Kemiska Hälsorisker” (Chemical Health Risks) (ISBN 91-23-92593-0): “The polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons include many of the most potent carcinogenic agents yet known.”

Eight PAHs are named as being especially harmful, including, benzo(a)anthracene, benzo(a)pyrene and benzo(e)pyrene, which have also been found in Becel Pro.Activ. The report states:
“All these compounds give rise to skin cancer if they are applied to the skin. Inhalation of these compounds has been shown to induce lung cancer and laboratory studies have confirmed that animals injected with these compounds have developed liver tumours.”

And also:
“The following test results can illustrate how harmful these compounds are: Approximately three micrograms of dibenzo(a,h)pyrene are injected into the abdominal cavity of a group of (80) new-born mice. This dose was sufficient to induce one or more lung tumours in almost 100% of those mice that survived for one year (40 mice).”

The National Food Administration states in Swedish Environmental Protection Agency (SNV)
report no. 3623 (ISBN 91-620-3623-8):

“The first organic compounds that could be linked to chemical carcinogens in animals and humans are to be found amongst PAHs. Even when levels of exposure are microgram doses, many PAHs are some of the most potent carcinogens that have been identified with the formation of tumours. Laboratory experiments have proved that tumours develop both at the site of application and in organs far from the site of absorption. Effects have been observed in almost all tissues and in all species on which tests have been carried out, irrespective of the method of administration.”

Stomach tumours
From the same report:“Stomach tumours in human beings have been linked to Benz(a)pyrene and other PAHs following exposure to coal dust (Ames 1983), burning of coal, oil and wood (Weinberg et al. 1985) and consumption of smoked foods (Dungal 1961; Sigurjonsson 1967).”

The National Food Administration has also estimated that the number of cases of cancer that PAHs are expected to cause regrettably exceed the limits that should be tolerated in our society.
“The intake of PAHs both from our food and via our lungs can constitute a risk of developing tumours that exceeds what is the normally acceptable level – one case of cancer per one million persons during a lifetime (Kramers and van der Heijden 1988).”

With regard to the intake of Benz(a)pyrene (one of all the many PAHs) in Sweden, the report states:
“Calculations of the intake of PAHs that Santodonator at al. (1980) have made would mean that the limit is exceeded by 3 to 34 times via the consumption of food, and by 12 to 44 times together with air, water and tobacco.”

Refer to Appendix 3

Where do the PAHs in Becel Pro.Activ come from?
This is a difficult question to answer. However, since the method of production is a highly chemicalised process, there is a real risk that PAHs are present as contaminants in some of the many chemicals that are included in the manufacturing process. According to information about these processes, including the National Food Administration’s report (See their reply to a letter sent 8th September 2000, document no. 1:287/00), the following chemicals are used in the manufacture of margarine and industrially processed fats:

- Caustic soda
- Phosphoric acid/citric acid
- Bleaching agent
- Acetone
- Hexane solvent extraction
- Sodium methylate
- Finely divided nickel
- Methanol may be formed by sodium methylate in this process

These substances are used, despite the fact that food legislation does not include any approval for such high-risk chemicals, e.g. nickel and sodium methylate. It is high time that this unsatisfactory state of affairs was put right. It is to be noted that the chemicals are used primarily for cosmetic purposes, giving the fat its synthetic taste, smell, consistency and colour, so that it resembles butter. Research (Biernoth och Rost) has also proved that the extreme temperatures of up to around 230° to which the fats are heated during the manufacturing process (a hot frying pan reaches a temperature of about 170°) can cause the formation of PAHs. Furthermore, fats for the margarine industry are sometimes transported in tankers that have also been used to ship chemicals, such as petroleum hydrocarbon. PAHs are normally found in a great number of petroleum products.

The manufacturing methods used by Unilever (formerly Van den Bergh Foods) have been criticised on previous occasions when the National Food Administration tested some of the company’s products (‘Milda’ and ‘Nytta/Becel’) and found that they contained solvent extraction.

Becel Pro.Activ also contains phytosterols. According to reports, these are produced using a highly chemicalised process, in which suppliers in Finland, for example, obtain them as waste products from the cellulose industry and from the production of timber. These processes also use solvents. A similar extraction procedure is also used in the soy industry

The Swedish Consumer Coalition demands that the National Food Administration prohibits sales of Becel Pro.Activ
In a letter to the National Food Administration, the Swedish Consumer Coalition demands that the Administration informs the general public about the carcinogenic agents in Becel Pro.Activ and also prohibits sales of this product. See separate letter.


Appendix 1

Analysis report

Appendix 2

Reliability of the analysis
The analysis of Becel Pro.Activ was conducted at the NIVA laboratory in Norway, to which an unopened packet of the product, purchased in Sweden, was sent. This is the same laboratory that the National Food Administration used for its analyses of PAHs in olive oils. The National Food Administration scrutinised the reliability of the laboratory and had several samples with the same content analysed by the laboratory. The results corresponded well. After this, just one sample of each olive oil was analysed, which was then to form the basis for the decision to approve or prohibit the sale of these products. In the same way, the Swedish Consumer Coalition had a sample analysed. This is to form the basis for the approval or prohibition of the sale of this product.


Appendix 3

The impact of PAHs on our health, according to the National Food Administration (from the Administration’s website ):
Effects on reproduction. Since PAHs pass from mother to foetus during pregnancy, several studies have been carried out to investigate what effects exposure of the pregnant mother has on the offspring. The results of such studies prove that amongst the young of mothers exposed to high doses of PAHs, the death rate is higher, birth weight is lower and deformity is more common than amongst the young of females that have not been exposed. The effects of these tests vary drastically depending greatly on which strain of laboratory animal was used.

Effects on the immune defence system. It has been proved through tests on laboratory animals that carcinogenic PAHs also have negative effects on the immune defence system. This is observed, for instance, in a slow-down of antibody production, which could lead to greater susceptibility to infections. In these studies too, the laboratory animals have been exposed to high doses of PAHs, compared to what a person is exposed to.

Mutagenicity. It is clearly borne out that many PAHs are mutagens, i.e. that they are metabolised to reactive molecules that interact with DNAs and in this way induce changes in our genes. If they are not remedied, some of these changes may cause tumour development. The mutagenicity studies have often been conducted in vitro, i.e. in test tubes, by exposing bacteria or cells of mammals to PAHs together with metabolised enzyme systems. Mutated cells or damage to DNAs have then been identified. By conducting such studies, it has been possible to confirm that in order for PAHs to be able to damage DNAs, they first have to be metabolised by mammal cells (normally liver cells). The fact that PAHs really are mutagens, not just in vitro but also in vivo, has been proved in studies where laboratory animals have been exposed, for example, to benzo(a)pyrene and benzo(a)anthracene. After that, damage to DNAs has been identified in different organs from the animals.

Tumour induction. Numerous studies have proved that several different PAHs, for example, benzo(a)pyrene, benzo(a)anthracene and dibenzo(a,h)anthracene, can give rise to tumours in various species of laboratory animals. The type of tumours that develop is determined by the method of exposure. Oral exposure mainly results in cancer of the stomach.

Read the letter sent to National Food Administration >>
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