Aluminum in Food

Aluminum is a metallic element that makes up about 8.2% of the Earth’s crust.
In the 19th century, the discovery of cheaper extraction processes (from aluminum oxide and bauxite) enhanced the material’s application and versatility.

Food additives, cooking utensils, pharmaceuticals, deodorants, food and beverages contain aluminum in varying amounts.
However, contrary to other metallic elements (such as iron, zinc, copper, etc.), aluminum is neither useful nor essential for man. This is why its excessive presence in the diet should be considered potentially harmful to health.

Aluminum in Additives

Being a ubiquitous element, aluminum is found in soil and water all over the globe. This means that most foods contain it “at least”, allowing it to enter the human body on a daily basis.
Let’s specify right away that small amounts of aluminum do not cause any kind of injury, but over time, this metal could accumulate in tissues.
Aluminum is a fundamental element for certain food additives, mainly contained in: chemical yeast, melted cheese (sottilette, formaggino etc) and pickles.
The table below summarizes the Italian and American lists of food additives that contain aluminum.

The safety of these ingredients is still under discussion.

In September 2005, a research group known as the Department of the Planet Earth submitted a request to exclude aluminum-containing additives from the Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS) list.
In support of the petition, a number of studies were reported that attempted to demonstrate a correlation between aluminum and Alzheimer’s disease.
However, these insights did not prove to be statistically significant.

Aluminum and Food Preparation

In addition to being naturally present in foods and beverages, and structuring various additives, aluminum can contaminate foods during their preparation. Transit of the material occurs from the utensils (pans, containers, etc.) to the food, through chemical or physical wear and tear.
In the culinary sector, aluminum is one of the most widely used materials. It is characterized by an excellent thermal conduction, characterized by uniformity and efficiency.
On the other hand, aluminum is a rather soft metal; if scraped, it easily yields small fragments that “dirty” food. An indicative example is the production of creams and b├ęchamel; in these recipes it is required a massive use of the whisk which, if made of steel (harder than aluminum), corrodes the pan. Sometimes, the particles that are released by this process are so abundant that they change the color of the sauce or cream making it turn green or grey.
In addition, aluminum tends to react with acidic foods such as fruits, vegetables, vinegar, and wine (especially in the presence of heat). This chemical interaction promotes erosion of the metal and promotes its passage into foods. Moreover, aluminum promotes food oxidation, therefore it is NOT particularly suitable for preservation.
In order to avoid these eventualities, many manufacturers have started to make pans and frying pans in anodized aluminum. This process allows to:

  • Maintain the conductivity of the material
  • Create a harder surface layer
  • Prevent food reaction

It is still necessary to avoid scratching the containers, e.g. by using less aggressive ladles, tongs and whisks (e.g. plastic or silicone-coated ones).

Aluminum Toxicity

According to some laboratory analyses carried out in the United States, the foods that contribute most to aluminum intake are: cereals and derivatives (such as bread, cakes, cookies and pastries), vegetables (spinach, horseradish and lettuce), mushrooms, beverages (tea and cocoa) and some early childhood products. Drinking water and medicines are also a significant source of aluminum.
On the basis of some research, considering the poor elimination of the metal from tissues, the “European Food Safety Authority” (EFSA) has restricted the dietary intake of aluminum to 1mg/kg body weight per week. Beyond this limit it is not excluded that it could create health problems.
The average dietary exposure of the European population is calculated taking into account studies carried out in different countries (Netherlands, France, United Kingdom and Sweden). The study, carried out by a group of experts appointed by EFSA, highlighted how heterogeneous collective exposure can be. The average for the adult population is between 0.2-1.5mg/kg per week; for younger subjects, the maximum limits have varied between 0.7-2.3mg/kg per week.
The NYU Langone Medical Center reports that prolonged exposure, especially at high levels, can cause serious health problems.
Eating foods that contain sodium acid phosphate and aluminum, or living near mining operations, exposure to the metal becomes more harmful over time.
However, even short-term exposure, such as breathing in aluminum dust in the workplace, can be very harmful.
Aluminum toxicity affects the musculoskeletal system and brain, causing: muscle weakness, bone pain, osteoporosis, fetal changes, growth retardation in children, and impairment of male reproductive function (testicular compromise). Deterioration of mental abilities, dementia and seizures occur predominantly in individuals with renal failure.