Special Problems Associated with Substances Required for Human Nutrition

Although the risk assessment model outlined above can be applied to nutrients to derive ULs, it must be recognized that nutrients possess some properties that distinguish them from the types of agents for which the risk assessment model was originally developed (NRC, 1983). In the application of accepted standards for assessing risks of environmental chemicals to the risk assessment of nutrients and food components, a fundamental difference between the two categories must be recognized: within a certain range of intakes, many nutrients are essential for human well-being and usually for life itself. Nonetheless, they may share with other chemicals the production of adverse effects at excessive exposures. Because the consumption of balanced diets is consistent with the development and survival of humankind over many millennia, there is less need for the large uncertainty factors that have been used in the typical risk assessment of nonessential chemicals. In addition, if data on the adverse effects of nutrients are available primarily from studies in human populations, there will be less uncertainty than is associated with the types of data available on nonessential chemicals.

There is no evidence to suggest that nutrients consumed at the recommended intake (the RDA or AI) present a risk of adverse effects to the general population. It is clear, however, that the addition of nutrients to a diet, either through the ingestion of large amounts of highly fortified food or nonfood sources such as supplements, or both, may (at some level) pose a risk of adverse health effects.2 The UL is the highest level of daily nutrient intake that is likely to pose no risk of adverse health effects to almost all individuals in the general population. As intake increases above the UL, the risk of adverse effects increases.

If adverse effects have been associated with total intake, ULs are based on total intake of a nutrient from food, water, and supplements. For cases in which adverse effects have been associated with intake only from supplements and/or food fortificants, the UL is based on intake from those sources only, rather than on total intake. The effects of nutrients from fortified foods or supplements may differ from those of naturally occurring constituents of foods because of several factors: the chemical form of the nutrient, the timing of the intake and amount consumed in a single bolus dose, the matrix supplied by the food, and the relation of the nutrient to the other constituents of the diet. Nutrient requirements and food intake are related to the metabolizing body mass, which is also at least an indirect measure of the space in which the nutrients are


It is recognized that possible exceptions to this generalization relate to specific geochemical areas with excessive environmental exposures to certain trace elements (for example, selenium) and to rare case reports of adverse effects associated with highly eccentric consumption of specific foods. Data from such findings are not useful for setting ULs for the general North American population.

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