News from CRIS: Risk - Zero Risk?

March 28, 2022

One of the main concerns we see folks express around ingredient safety is a desire to ensure an ingredient is completely safe with no risk for harm. 

It seems like a reasonable desire, to know that the ingredients in the foods and beverages we consume and the cosmetics and products we use are supporting our health, rather than harming our health. But, like all of science (and life for that matter), there is not an easy answer.
Science and evidence-based information don’t work with simple yes or no statements, as we’re often dealing with nature, humans, and organisms that follow specific patterns and rules, but each is biologically unique. When researchers are looking to evaluate the safety of an ingredient, they must take into consideration all the factors that impact the ingredient’s hazard score. Once researchers know the hazard score they can figure out an approximate risk by looking at human exposure to the ingredient.
Sounds complicated? Let’s break it down.

What is a hazard?

Hazards, in terms of ingredient safety, are any ingredient or process that we know can cause harm.
For example, we know that water can harm humans in many situations, such as over-consumption or drowning. Hazards remain static, meaning they are not actively causing harm unless we engage with the hazard. This concept shows us that water remains a hazard whether it's in a glass, on our table, a pond in our backyard, or locked in a maximum-security vault.
The hazard does not change.

What is exposure?

Exposure is how we’re introduced to hazards. For example, in seeds and pits found in fruits, we can find potentially harmful cyanogenic glycosides, which are compounds that upon digestion can break down into cyanide. That is a hazard.
But, if we eat a rogue apple seed, we won’t become ill because the hazard is present at a very low level, therefore exposure is low and no harm occurs. In fact, an average adult would need to consume 200 apple seeds in a short period of time to experience toxicity.
Exposure to a hazard doesn’t necessarily cause harm, but it does help determine our risk.

What is risk?

Risk is calculated using the formula: (hazard) X (exposure) = risk.
The formula allows us to take hazard and exposure into consideration so we can determine risk. Once we've established the risk, we can then identify the safe levels for consuming an ingredient.
We know apples are a fiber-filled fruit that can be incorporated as part of a healthy, balanced diet. But, we also know it’s not risk-free. They contain hazardous seeds. We also know it’s improbable that we’d be exposed to hazardous seeds of sufficiently high quality that we’d be at risk for an adverse health event.
So, is the risk of eating an apple zero? No, in scientific terms it’s not zero. Is the risk low enough that we don’t need to be concerned? Yes, there’s no reason to omit apples from our diet due to a minuscule, improbable, risk.


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