Biogenic amines

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Changed on: 13.03.2017

Biogenic amines are organic bases with low molecular weight. A distinction is made between aromatic amines such as histamine, tyramine, phenylethylamine and aliphatic amines like putrescine and cadaverine. They are formed in organisms by the decarboxylation of free amino acids. The decarboxylases required for this are widespread in animal and vegetable tissues as well as micro-organisms. Bacteria in particular have very active decarboxylases. This means that biogenic amines can proliferate during microbial food decay, but also during foodstuff preparation processes through fermentation and maturation or ripening.

Biogenic amines are important in a wide variety of ways. They are aroma and flavour agents, they are involved in non-enzymatic browning and they are used as criteria in quality control of foodstuffs.

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Biogenic amines are organic bases with low molecular weight. A distinction is made between aromatic amines such as histamine, tyramine, phenylethylamine and aliphatic amines like putrescine and cadaverine. They are formed in organisms by the decarboxylation of free amino acids. The decarboxylases required for this are widespread in animal and vegetable tissues as well as micro-organisms. Bacteria in particular have very active decarboxylases. This means that biogenic amines can proliferate during microbial food decay, but also during foodstuff preparation processes through fermentation and maturation or ripening.

Biogenic amines are important in a wide variety of ways. They are aroma and flavour agents, they are involved in non-enzymatic browning and they are used as criteria in quality control of foodstuffs.

More information

Importance for health


Biogenic amines, however, also play an important role in human physiology and are formed by the body itself. Thus histamine, for instance, is involved in the regulation of various bodily functions such as the secretion of gastric juice, cell growth and cellular differentiation, the sleep-wake rhythm, learning and memory.

Histamine, tyramine and phenylethylamine are vasoactive ( = has the effect of decreasing or increasing blood vessel diameter) and in high concentrations can affect blood pressure and cause headaches, allergy-like reactions and hives (urticaria) and even severe food poisoning. Putrescine and cadaverine are often cited as enhancers of these effects. One particularly strong enhancement of this effect is known to be the simultaneous consumption of alcohol or taking of medication containing monoamine or diamine oxidase inhibitors. Human sensitivity to biogenic amines differs greatly and depends on many different factors, for example on the enzymes available for degradation in particular. Around 15% of the population have either a genetic or a medication-related enzyme defect.

Recommendations for avoidance

There are numerous publications on biogenic amine content in foodstuffs. In recent decades there has been a reduction in the biogenic amine content in foodstuffs due to the identification of critical points of origin during production, the targeted use of starter cultures that form fewer amines and improved packaging, storage and transportation methods. Nevertheless, the recommendation is to eat more fresh foodstuffs and only to consume fermented foodstuffs like raw sausage, mature cheese, fermented fish products, sauerkraut, older red wine, soya sauces and fish sauces in moderation in order to avoid the intake of large quantities of biogenic amines. It is should be noted here that biogenic amine levels unfortunately vary greatly and the consumer can never gauge the quantity of biogenic amines in a product.

Maximum limit values

To date maximum levels have only been set by the EU for histamine in histidine-rich salt-water fish, such as species from the families scombridae, clupeidae, engraulidae, pomatomidae and scombraesosidae (Regulation (EU) No. 2073/2005 on microbiological criteria for foodstuffs). In other foodstuffs there are no regulations for histamine or for any other biogenic amines.

Risk assessment

Following several consumer complaints regarding various foodstuffs such as salami and sauerkraut that contained elevated levels of biogenic amines and led to health problems, such as severe burning in the mouth, swallowing complaints, severe headaches and diarrhoea, the working group “Nicht Sicher” (“Not Safe”) commissioned the risk assessment department of the Data, Statistics and Risk Assessment (DSR) branch of AGES to carry out a risk assessment concerning biogenic amines in foodstuffs.

For this reason, in recent years risk assessments have been carried out in the risk assessment department of the DSR branch of AGES concerning the five biogenic amines histamine, tyramine, phenylethylamine, putrescine and cadaverine. The work includes respective overviews of the published toxicologically active contents as well as a summary of possible contents in various foodstuffs. Finally, by drawing on food consumption data for Austria, possible tolerable content levels were derived for the individual biogenic amines in various fermented foodstuffs such as mature cheese, sauerkraut, fish and raw sausage.

Publications

RAUSCHER-GABERNIG E., GABERNIG R., BRÜLLER W., GROSSGUT R., BAUER F., PAULSEN P. (2012): Dietary exposure assessment of putrescine and cadaverine and derivation of tolerable levels in selected foods consumed in Austria. European Food Research and Technology, published online May 17 2012; DOI 10.1007/s00217-012-1748-1.


PAULSEN P., GROSSGUT R., BAUER F., RAUSCHER-GABERNIG E. (2012): Estimates of maximum tolerable levels of tyramine content in foods in Austria. Journal of Food and Nutrition Research 51(1): 52-59.

RAUSCHER-GABERNIG E., GROSSGUT R., BAUER F., PAULSEN P. (2010): Phenylethylamin in Lebensmitteln: Gehalte und Erarbeitung von tolerierbaren Höchstgehalten. Wiener Tierärztliche Monatsschrift - Vet. Med. Austria 97: 242-252. (Phenylethylamine in foods: concentrations and development of maximum tolerable levels)

RAUSCHER-GABERNIG E., GROSSGUT R., BAUER F., PAULSEN P. (2009): "Assessment of alimentary histamine exposure of consumers in Austria and development of tolerable levels in typical foods", Food Control 20 (2009) 423–429.

RAUSCHER-GABERNIG E., GROSSGUT R., BAUER F., PAULSEN P.(2007): Histamin in Lebensmitteln – Toxikologie, Gehalte und Aufnahme. Ernährung aktuell 3/07: 1-5. (Histamine in food – toxicology, concentrations and intake)


Events/conference transcripts:

RAUSCHER-GABERNIG E., GROSSGUT R., BAUER F., PAULSEN P. (2010): Risikobewertung von Tyramin und Phenylethylamin in Lebensmittel. Lebensmittelchemiker Tage 2010, 20.05.2010, Leibnitz: 30-35. (Risk assessment of tyramine and phenylethylamine in foods. Food Chemist Conference 2010, 20/05/2010, Leibnitz: 30-35.)

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