While the preliminary results of a study by the UK's food watchdog on contamination of oats at harvest by fusarium toxins indicates the potential for retail oat products to be contaminated by harmful trichothecene toxins, the levels discovered were very low.
"They may pose long-term risks to people's health if they eat food that contains high levels," said the Food Standards Agency (FSA) but stressed at the same time that the levels found in the survey fall well into the safety zone.
With growing evidence suggesting the cholesterol lowering, heart healthy benefits of oat products the FSA results will be welcomed by retailer and consumer alike.
Fungal contamination of crops with consequent exposure of the population to mycotoxins is a hazard that has always existed for humans. The only way to avoid exposure to mycotoxins is to completely stop eating the foods in which they are likely to occur. However, to do so would eliminate nutritionally valuable foods from our diet, said the FSA.
Researchers bought 335 samples of a wide range of retail oat products at random - including Jordan's, Heinz and Cow & Gate - from a variety of UK shops. No mycotoxins were found in 48 per cent of these samples and the levels measured in the rest of the samples were generally extremely low, typically below the level of 10 micrograms/kg for each mycotoxin analysed.
There are currently no regulatory limits for these mycotoxins in oats in the UK. However maximum limits are under discussion in the EU and the vast majority of the levels found in this survey are below the proposed EC limits.
"The survey does not raise any safety concerns about oat products on sale to the public and so consumers do not need to change their diets as a result of the findings," concluded the FSA.
Fusarium toxins are naturally occuring chemicals produced by a particular type of mould that can grow on cereal crops such as oats. These mycotoxins are chemically stable and survive food processing, posing a potential risk to human health.
Trichothecenes are acutely toxic to humans causing sickness and diarrhoea and in extreme cases death. Chronic effects in animals have been reported to include immunosuppression and teratogenicity. Those trichothecenes, which are most frequently found as contaminants in cereals and cereal products, were recently considered by the European Union's Scientific Committee on Food (SCF) that set a TDI of 1 µ/kg bodyweight per day for DON, a temporary TDI of 0.7 µ/kg bodyweight per day for NIV and a combined temporary TDI of 0.06µ/kg bodyweight per day for T2 and HT2.
"The TDI is an estimate of the amount of contaminant expressed on a bodyweight basis that can be ingested daily over a lifetime without appreciable health risks. The results of this survey indicate that human exposure to fusarium toxins is very low in the UK," added the FSA.
Foods produced from oats, a low cost crop commodity, have been gaining in favour with food manufacturers as their health properties come to light.
Several studies have shown the positive impact that oat consumption can have on cholesterol where the soluble fibre in oats helps to reduce cholesterol and glucose absorption (the glycemic index) in blood by increasing the viscosity in the gut.
Recent research also suggests the fibre could help control blood pressure and because it is low in gluten can be eaten by those with coeliac disease, a claim confirmed by the UK's Coeliac Association. The further claim relates to the glycemic index, vital for those sensitive to insulin because it can help to control blood sugars.
Ingredients companies working with oats, such as Finnish company Avena Oat Ingredients, part of grain trading Avena Group that controls 70 per cent of the Finnish oat market, select varieties of oats which contain high levels of beta-glucan - the cell wall plant component that has been linked to reduced blood pressure and cardiovascular health benefits.
Beating a path to functional ingredients, a recent Datamonitor report predicts that 5 million European consumers are expected to buy a functional food by 2007.