Coumarin in Selected Foods - April 1, 2016 to March 31, 2018

Food chemistry – Targeted surveys – Final report


Targeted surveys provide information on potential food hazards and enhance the Canadian Food Inspection Agency's (CFIA's) routine monitoring programs. These surveys provide evidence regarding the safety of the food supply, identify potential emerging hazards, and contribute new information and data to food categories where it may be limited or non-existent. They are often used by the agency to focus surveillance on potential areas of higher risk. Surveys can also help to identify trends and provide information about how industry complies with Canadian regulations.

Coumarin is a naturally occurring sweet-smelling compound found in many plants, including cinnamon and tonka beans. Its derivatives can be found in plants commonly used as licorice flavour, such as fennel, aniseed and licorice rootFootnote 1Footnote 2Footnote 3. Coumarin was used as a flavouring agent in the food and cosmetic industries for many years, and although its use in the cosmetic industry continues, it has been discontinued in the food industry due to evidence of potential toxic and adverse effects on the liverFootnote 4Footnote 5. Low exposure to this compound from natural sources is expected and not anticipated to represent a health risk. The CFIA considered it important to examine coumarin levels in commonly available ground cinnamon, cinnamon-containing products and licorice flavoured products to ensure that these are safe for consumption.

This targeted survey generated further baseline surveillance data on the levels of coumarin in domestic and imported products on the Canadian retail market. The CFIA sampled and analyzed 1497 products, including 498 baked goods, 199 breakfast cereal samples, 300 cinnamon samples, 450 spice mixes, and 50 flavoured oatmeal samples. Coumarin was detected in 96% of the samples, with levels ranging from 0.2 parts per million (ppm) to 11,700 ppm. The highest levels were detected in cinnamon and in spice mixes. The average and maximum level in all categories were comparable to previous targeted surveys and scientific studies.

Health Canada determined that the levels of coumarin observed in this survey are not expected to pose a concern to human health, therefore there were no follow-up actions resulting from these surveys.

What are targeted surveys

Targeted surveys are used by the CFIA to focus its surveillance activities on areas of highest health risk. The information gained from these surveys provides support for the allocation and prioritization of the agency's activities to areas of greater concern. Originally started as a project under the Food Safety Action Plan (FSAP), targeted surveys have been embedded in our regular surveillance activities since 2013. Targeted surveys are a valuable tool for generating information on certain hazards in foods, identifying and characterizing new and emerging hazards, informing trend analysis, prompting and refining health risk assessments, highlighting potential contamination issues, as well as assessing and promoting compliance with Canadian regulations.

Food safety is a shared responsibility. We work with federal, provincial, territorial and municipal governments and provide regulatory oversight of the food industry to promote safe handling of foods throughout the food production chain. The food industry and retail sectors in Canada are responsible for the food they produce and sell, while individual consumers are responsible for the safe handling of the food they have in their possession.

Why did we conduct this survey

The main objectives of this targeted survey were to generate further baseline surveillance data on the level of coumarin in cinnamon, spice mixes, and cinnamon-containing products (baked products, breakfast cereal samples, flavoured oatmeal samples) on the Canadian retail market, and to compare the presence of coumarin in foods targeted in this survey to previous targeted surveys and scientific literature.

Coumarin is a naturally occurring sweet-smelling compound found in many plants, including cinnamon and tonka beans. High coumarin concentrations can be found in Cassia cinnamon (also known as Chinese cinnamon and Saigon cinnamon), whereas the Ceylon cinnamon (also known as true cinnamon) typically contains only traces. Ceylon cinnamon is typically more expensive than Cassia cinnamon, and has a milder flavour/spice profile. Due to economics and a preference of the public for a "spicier flavour profile", most of the cinnamon sold today is Cassia cinnamon.

In order to achieve a consistent flavour profile in processed foods, the use of flavouring extracts has been a common practice in the food industry. Coumarin, either naturally derived or synthetically produced, was used as a flavouring agent in the past; however, its use in food has been discontinued based on reports of adverse health effects in animal studiesFootnote 4Footnote 5. The deliberate addition of coumarin to foods is not permitted in Canada; however, plants or herbs that are added to foods as flavours may contain this compound naturally. The main source of naturally occurring coumarin in the human diet is cinnamonFootnote 5Footnote 6. The majority of people can consume these foods daily without adverse effects; however, there is a small number of individuals who are sensitive to coumarin. For this group, consuming higher levels than would normally be found in food can lead to elevation of liver enzymes, and in severe cases to inflammation of the liverFootnote 1.

Limited data is available on the occurrence of coumarin in foods containing cinnamon and licorice flavouring. Cinnamon is frequently used in baked goods, spice mixes and tea for its unique flavourFootnote 9 and licorice flavours are commonly incorporated into teas and spice mixes. It was considered important to examine the coumarin levels in commonly available cinnamon-containing products to ensure that the populations consuming these foods are not at risk. All of the survey data was shared with HC.

What did we sample

A variety of domestic and imported baked products, cinnamon, spice mixes, breakfast cereals, and flavoured oatmeal were sampled between April 1, 2016 and March 31, 2018. All samples, other than pure cinnamon, had cinnamon listed as an ingredient. Samples of products were collected from local/regional retail locations located in 6 major cities across Canada. These cities encompassed 4 Canadian geographical areas: Atlantic (Halifax), Quebec (Montreal), Ontario (Toronto, Ottawa), and the West (Vancouver, and Calgary). The number of samples collected from these cities was in proportion to the relative population of the respective areas. Refer to Table 1 for the product types collected in this survey.

Table 1. Distribution of samples based on product type and origin
Product type Number of domestic samples Number of imported samples Number of samples of unspecified origin Table note a Total number of samples
Baked products 62 49 387 498
Breakfast cereal 19 134 46 199
Flavoured oatmeal 1 16 33 50
Cinnamon 11 54 235 300
Mixed spices 44 117 289 450
Total 137 370 990 1497

How were samples analyzed and assessed

Samples were analyzed by an ISO/IEC 17025 accredited food testing laboratory under contract with the Government of Canada. The results presented represent finished food products as sold and not as they would be consumed, whether the product sampled is considered an ingredient or requires preparation prior to consumption.

In the absence of established tolerances or standards for coumarin in foods, elevated levels of coumarin in specific foods may be assessed by Health Canada on a case-by-case basis using the most current scientific data available.

What were the survey results

The samples tested in this survey included cinnamon, spice mixes, as well as baked products, breakfast cereals, and flavoured oatmeal. Of the 1497 samples tested, 96% had detected levels of coumarin. Coumarin is a natural compound found in cinnamon. Its concentration varies among the different types of cinnamon. Cassia cinnamon, the most common type, also contains high levels of coumarin which may account for the high detection rate in all tested products. All observed results are noted in table 2 below.

Table 2. Summary of targeted survey results on coumarin in cinnamon, spice mixes, and cinnamon-containing foods
Product type Number of samples Number of samples (%) with detected levels Minimum (ppm) Maximum (ppm) Average Table note b (ppm)
Baked products 498 482 (97) 0.2 80.5 16.2
Baked goods 126 124 (99%) 0.3 75.4 19.2
Bakery products 372 358 (96%) 0.2 80.5 14.5
Breakfast cereal 199 173 (85) 0.2 45.6 9.75
Adult cereals 100 83 (83) 0.3 35.4 5.73
Children cereals 99 90 (90) 0.2 45.6 11.2
Flavoured oatmeal 50 48 (96) 1.9 34.9 13.4
Cinnamon 300 300 (100) 5.8 11700 3339
Mixed spices 450 431 (96) 0.2 3380 361
Total 1497 1434 (96) 0.2 11700 814

Coumarin levels in the survey samples ranged from 0.2 ppm to 11,700 ppm. The highest coumarin level of all products was found in pure cinnamon at 11,700 ppm. All sampled foods and spices, other than pure cinnamon, had cinnamon amongst other ingredients. Since the cinnamon content is lower in the tested products than in pure cinnamon, lower coumarin levels in these products was expected.

Coumarin was detected in 97% of baked products with levels ranging from 0.2 ppm to 80.5 ppm. Baked products sampled were comprised of baked goods (cakes, pies, rolls, donuts, pastries, etc.) and bakery products (bread, English muffins, bagels, etc.). Baked goods had a higher detection rate and average than bakery products.

Breakfast cereals included single or multi-grain cereals targeted at adults and at children. Children cereals had a higher detection rate and significantly higher average coumarin levels than that of adult cereals.

The detection rate in flavoured oatmeal samples was higher than in breakfast cereals at 96%, as was the average of 13.4 ppm, with levels ranging from 1.9 to 34.9 ppm.

Of the spice mixes, the top 4 samples with the highest levels of coumarin were blends of 4 spices (cinnamon, Jamaican pepper, clove, and nutmeg), ranging from 2560 to 3380 ppm. The next highest samples were cinnamon with chia and apple pie spice, both with 2490 ppm.

What do the survey results mean

The average and maximum coumarin levels found in baked products, cinnamon, spice mixes, breakfast cereals, and flavoured oatmeal were comparable to previous targeted survey yearsFootnote 10Footnote 11Footnote 12Footnote 13 and scientific studiesFootnote 9Footnote 14Footnote 15Footnote 16Footnote 17Footnote 18Footnote 19Footnote 20. The wide range of coumarin levels found in these commodities may be due to natural variation, degree of processing, the amount and the type of cinnamon used in these commoditiesFootnote 16. The Government of Canada has restrictions on coumarin as an additive to foods, but not on maximum concentrations from natural sourcesFootnote 21. The highest coumarin level reported in this survey was 11,700 ppm in pure cinnamon. The reported level was within the range observed in literatureFootnote 12Footnote 14Footnote 15Footnote 22.

The percentages of baked products, cinnamon, and spice mix samples with detected levels of coumarin in this survey were 97%, 100% and 96%, respectively. These numbers are comparable to detection rates in the most recent CFIA 2015 survey for comparable product types (94%, 100% and 95%, respectively). The average and maximum levels in these commodities are also in agreement with the literature values and previous surveys shown in Table 3.

Coumarin levels in flavoured oatmeal were comparable to breakfast cereals results. No studies on coumarin levels in flavoured oatmeal have been found, and only limited information could be found on breakfast cereals. However, literature values for breakfast cereals are small and limited to small sample sizes, and therefore can't be representative of the market. Average levels are also low for this commodity type compared to other types.

The average and maximum coumarin levels of baked products in this survey are in close agreement with the results of the 2013 and 2015 surveys for baked goods. The range of coumarin levels observed in baked goods was within 130 ppm reported in literature and previous surveys. The average level of coumarin in baked products in this survey (16 ppm) closely matched that of previous surveys (18 and 16 ppm).

Results for cinnamon samples were comparable to data from previous surveys and literature. There is a natural variation in the different types of cinnamon, which could account for the range of sample levels of 5.8 to 11,700 ppm.

Data regarding spice mixes was similar across all surveys (2011-2018) for minimum, maximum, and average coumarin levels.

Health Canada's Bureau of Chemical Safety determined the levels of coumarin in food observed in this survey are not expected to pose a concern to human health; therefore no follow-up actions were required. Different agencies, such as the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), Germany's Federal Institute of Risk Assessment (BfR), and the Norwegian Scientific Committee for Food Safety have emitted warnings or established limits regarding cinnamon consumption and elevated intake of coumarinFootnote 6Footnote 7Footnote 8.

Table 3. Minimum, maximum and average level of coumarin in cinnamon-containing foods across various studies
Product type Study Number of samples Minimum (ppm) Maximum (ppm) Average (ppm)
Cinnamon CFIA survey, 2016 to 2018 300 5.8 11700 3340 Table note d
Ground cinnamon CFIA survey, 2015 28 6.8 5040 2939 Table note d
Gound cinamon CFIA survey, 2011 87 16.2 7816 3594 Table note d
Saigon cinnamon Wang et al., 2013 2 1060 6970 4015
Ceylon cinnamon Wang et al., 2013 17 5 90 18.8
Gound cinamon Blahová et al., 2012 60 2571 7057 3856
Cinnamon powder and sticks Krüger et al., 2018 28 8 5017 1449
Cassia cinnamon powder and sticks Woehrlin et al., 2010 69 <LOD Table note c 9900 3697
Cinnamon powder Lungarini et al., 2008 20 5 3094 1456
Tea CFIA survey, 2015 297 0.2 2230 442 Table note d
Tea CFIA survey, 2014 508 0.2 1920 302 Table note d
Tea CFIA survey, 2013 115 0.3 2430 500 Table note d
Tea CFIA survey, 2011 11 <0.29 1040 380 Table note d
Tea Krüger et al., 2018 8 20 137 62
Tea Lungarini et al., 2008 5 30 192 81
Spice mix CFIA survey, 2016 to 2018 450 0.2 3380 361 Table note d
Spice mix CFIA survey, 2015 222 0.2 3040 327 Table note d
Spice mix CFIA survey, 2014 324 0.2 2170 329 Table note d
Spice mix CFIA survey, 2013 103 0.2 2510 390 Table note d
Spice mix CFIA survey, 2012 53 30 3078 568 Table note d
Spice mix CFIA survey, 2011 24 <0.29 2014 352 Table note d
Spice mix Raters et al., 2008 172 <0.03 4309 174
Baked products CFIA survey, 2016 to 2018 498 0.2 80 16 Table note d
Baked goods CFIA survey, 2015 200 0.2 130 18 Table note d
Baked goods CFIA survey, 2013 139 0.1 83 16 Table note d
Baked goods Raters et al., 2008 307 <0.03 103 7.87
Breakfast cereals CFIA survey, 2016 to 2018 199 0.2 45.6 9.75 Table note d
Breakfast cereals Krüger et al., 2018 3 0.7 1.3 0.9
Other bakery products and breakfast cereals Ballin, 2014 13 N/A Table note e 32 9
Breakfast cereals Sproll et al., 2008 4 0.9 10 3.3
Flavoured oatmeal CFIA survey, 2016 to 2018 50 1.9 39.4 13.4 Table note d