Risk-benefit assessment: How healthy is our food?

Food, fish and agriculture Nutrition and dietary habits Food safety

Food affects your health, but to what extent particular foods are good or bad is often not clear. Therefore, it is relevant to do a scientific risk-benefit assessment to assess the overall health effect of food. The National Food Institute, Technical University of Denmark, conducts research into how such assessments can be optimized and developed.

In general, foods can have both positive and negative effects on health. Fish, for example, contains healthy fatty acids but may also contain heavy metals, and nuts have a lot of beneficial fats but can also contain carcinogenic toxins from molds (aflatoxins). Without weighing the various health consequences of each food, it may be difficult to decide whether or not to consume a particular food.

Recent research has made it possible to compare the positive and negative health effects of foods through the application of risk-benefit assessments. Such assessments quantify health effects and allow researchers to determine whether food or food components have an overall health benefit.

The National Food Institute conducts research with the aim of optimizing the current risk-benefit assessment methodologies.

Working across disciplines

Risk-benefit assessment is a relatively new discipline that integrates scientific knowledge on nutrition, toxicology and microbiology with human epidemiology. In risk-benefit assessments the positive and negative health effects are most commonly measured in disability-adjusted life years (DALY). DALY is an increasingly applied measure indicating how many healthy years of life are lost due to premature death or because quality of life is lowered due to a disease.

Broad application

Risk-benefit assessments allow us to not only assess the health impact of a single food, but also of nutrients or different types of diets. In a new project at the National Food Institute, researchers are assessing the net health gain achieved by eating according to the official dietary guidelines as compared to the Danish population’s actual diet.

It will also be possible to apply the principles behind this work to identify the most important food associated health risks and to do risk-benefit assessments of different diets such as organic diet or the Atkins diet.

Read more

The National Food Institute’s work on risk-benefit assessments is described in further detail in an article in the publication Pan European Networks Science & Technology: Search for a perfect diet.