What is erucic acid and why is its consumption regulated?

The presence of erucic acid in food is regulated, as it has been shown to be harmful in animals. At the moment, no negative effects have been observed in humans, although it is preferable to be cautious.

Written and verified by the nutritionist Anna Vilarrasa on August 27, 2021.

Last update: August 27, 2021

Monounsaturated fats and olive oil in particular are well known for their positive health effects. However, there are other fatty acids in the same family that raise questions about their food safety. This is the case with erucic acid.

The alert occurs after observing heart damage in animals. However, there is no evidence that it produces the same harmful effects in humans. Although it is preferable to be prudent with its consumption, especially in the age groups under 10 years.

In the following article you can discover what compound we are talking about, where erucic acid is found and what the competent authorities say about its consumption and regulation.

What is erucic acid?

Erucic acid owes its name to the Latin term eruca. It is a genus of plants in the family Brassicaceae, which include rapeseed, mustard, Brussels sprouts and broccoli.

Specifically, we are in front of a type of omega 9 fatty acid, the same group to which oleic acid belongs, abundant in olive oil. Its chemical name is 13-docosenoic acid or 22: 1 (n-9) acid. Due to its composition, it is a type of monounsaturated fat.

Fatty acids are a type of molecule that is part of lipids. In the body they are important because they are part of cell membranes and have an energetic function. In addition, they regulate some processes, such as body temperature, blood clotting, muscle contraction or the secretion of hormones.

Some of the benefits of monounsaturated fatty acids are related to heart health, body weight, and diabetes. Expert recommendations are increase their consumption as the main source of lipids, along with polyunsaturated fatty acids (such as omega 3 and omega 6).

The family to which cabbages and broccoli belong is recognized for their beneficial effects on human health.

Why is its consumption regulated? Possible harmful effects

Concerns about the harm that erucic acid intake can bring stem from animal studies. For the moment, there are no specific analyzes and studies in humans that demonstrate the same harmful effects.

As data from the Catalan Food Safety Agency indicate, the main concern stems from chronic and prolonged exposure to this type of acid. At present, there are no known toxic effects of acute exposure and it appears that the main organ affected is the heart.

Tests in rats and pigs show that the intake of oils with erucic acid causes an accumulation of fat in the myocardium. This affectation is known as myocardial lipidosis and it is a temporary and reversible problem. Furthermore, it is known to be more severe in younger individuals.

As a result, the ability and force of contraction of the heart muscle can be affected. In addition, other types of cardiac lesions have also been observed in mice, generated by the oxidative capacity of the acid.

The reason why this happens could be the difficulty of the liver and myocardium to oxidize these types of long-chain fatty acids. Humans have a different fat metabolism than animals. For this reason, the affectation is also different.

Where is erucic acid found

This type of omega 9 fatty acid is abundantly present in some seeds of the brassica family, such as mustard or rapeseed. In many countries, rapeseed oil is commonly used for seasoning, cooking and frying.

Due to its possible negative effects, efforts have been made to obtain low-acid seeds. Canola (Canadian rape variety) contains less than 2%. The Australian, less than 0.3%. What's more, the food industry also uses it in the production of margarines, pastries (cookies, cakes) and baby milk.

It is also naturally present in some fish and shellfish, but there are problems determining its presence and the exact amounts. The results of an analysis by the Norwegian Institute of Marine Research show that varieties and fattier parts of fish contain higher amounts of erucic acid.

The most notable figures have been found in halibut, salmon, herring, sprat and mackerel. In general, they are around 220-340 milligrams per 100 grams of food. Higher rates have been found in farmed fish.

What does the current regulations say

In 2016, the European Commission commissioned the European Food Safety Agency with a scientific opinion on the effects on human health of erucic acid. This order was carried out as a result of the possible adverse reactions caused by this food poisoning.

This panel of experts established in the document some Maximum tolerable intake levels (TDI) of 7 milligrams per kilogram of body weight per day, with a level without adverse effect of 0.7 milligrams per day per kilo of weight.

The data show that the mean intakes of the general population do not exceed the safety value. The greatest risk is found in the group of children under 10 years of age. Especially those with a regular exposure to foods with more acid presence.

For this reason, in 2019, the European Commission lowered the maximum allowed content of erucic acid in infant formula and follow-on formula. In addition, the possibility of regulating the maximum amounts allowed in products manufactured with added vegetable oils is also evaluated.

Also, the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) classifies low erucic acid rapeseed oil (or canola oil) as a safe food. This is less than 2% of the total content of fatty acids and it is allowed to be used as an edible oil and fat in food, except for infant formula.

International authorities limit the presence of erucic acid in infant milk.

Here's what to keep in mind about erucic acid

To this day, there are no data to show that erucic acid in the diet can cause adverse effects in humans. Similarly, myocardial lipidosis cannot be associated with necrosis in heart tissue.

However, doubts about the consequences of a possible high exposure remain. For this reason, the competent authorities in food safety have developed different regulations to regulate their presence.

Rapeseed and canola oils on the market are safe, as they comply with these regulations. However, it is advisable to avoid the consumption of margarines and other food products that may contain added vegetable fats.