State of the art in benefit-risk analysis: Food and nutrition

M.J. Tijhuis*, N. de Jong, M. Pohjola, H. Gunnlaugsdottir, M. Hendriksen, J. Hoekstra, F. Holm, N. Kalogeras, O. Leino, F.X.R. van Leeuwen, J. Luteijn, S. Magnusson, G.J. Odekerken-Schröder, C. Rompelberg, J. Tuomisto, O. Ueland, B. White, H. Verhagen

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journal(Systematic) Review article peer-review


Benefit-risk assessment in food and nutrition is relatively new. It weighs the beneficial and adverse effects that a food (component) may have, in order to facilitate more informed management decisions regarding public health issues. It is rooted in the recognition that good food and nutrition can improve health and that some risk may be acceptable if benefit is expected to outweigh it. This paper presents an overview of current concepts and practices in benefit-risk analysis for food and nutrition. It aims to facilitate scientists and policy makers in performing, interpreting and evaluating benefit-risk assessments.

Historically, the assessments of risks and benefits have been separate processes. Risk assessment is mainly addressed by toxicology, as demanded by regulation. It traditionally assumes that a maximum safe dose can be determined from experimental studies (usually in animals) and that applying appropriate uncertainty factors then defines the 'safe' intake for human populations. There is a minor role for other research traditions in risk assessment, such as epidemiology, which quantifies associations between determinants and health effects in humans. These effects can be both adverse and beneficial. Benefit assessment is newly developing in regulatory terms, but has been the subject of research for a long time within nutrition and epidemiology. The exact scope is yet to be defined. Reductions in risk can be termed benefits, but also states rising above 'the average health' are explored as benefits. In nutrition, current interest is in 'optimal' intake; from a population perspective, but also from a more individualised perspective.

In current approaches to combine benefit and risk assessment, benefit assessment mirrors the traditional risk assessment paradigm of hazard identification, hazard characterization, exposure assessment and risk characterization. Benefit-risk comparison can be qualitative and quantitative. In a quantitative comparison, benefits and risks are expressed in a common currency, for which the input may be deterministic or (increasingly more) probabilistic. A tiered approach is advocated, as this allows for transparency, an early stop in the analysis and interim interaction with the decision-maker. A general problem in the disciplines underlying benefit-risk assessment is that good dose-response data, i.e. at relevant intake levels and suitable for the target population, are scarce.

It is concluded that, provided it is clearly explained, benefit-risk assessment is a valuable approach to systematically show current knowledge and its gaps and to transparently provide the best possible science-based answer to complicated questions with a large potential impact on public health. 

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)5-25
Number of pages21
JournalFood and Chemical Toxicology
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2012


  • Benefit-risk
  • Benefit
  • Risk
  • Food
  • Nutrition
  • DIET

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