Aflatoxins : The invisible poison

Monday August 1 2016

 Dr. Sajjad Sherally Fazel

 Dr. Sajjad Sherally Fazel 

It might be hard to imagine but food can kill you. I do not mean junk food, because that is what we usually say when we want to discourage people from unhealthy eating. No, I mean healthy food can kill you.

I know it is hard to imagine, but you can be in critical condition or even die after eating common food such as corn, peanuts, milk, eggs or meat. Although the food might look normal and clean, it might be poisonous.

It is after you eat it that the slow poison begins to take over your body, damaging your organs one after the other-- starting with your liver as you slowly move closer to death.

These poisonous substances are called aflatoxins. They are poisonous metabolites produced by certain molds (Aspergillus flavus and Aspergillus parasiticus).

These chemicals are toxic and known to cause cancer in animals and humans. The fungi normally grows in common foods such as corn, peanuts, cassava, millet, rice, wheat, sunflower seeds, sorghum and nuts.

The mold generally grows on this produce during harvesting and storage. Improper drying of foods is a major factor of Aspergillus growth.

Unlike other fungi metabolites, when a food contaminated with aflatoxin producing fungi is processed, the fungi remains in the final product and continues to produce aflatoxins which then affects the end consumer.

Aflatoxins are quite stable compounds and can easily survive in high temperatures, therefore heating or cooking is not a reliable method of destroying these compounds. Finished products such as cassava and maize flour have been found to contain aflatoxins.

At times, it is quite easy to identify the fungus in common food items. For example, when you slice a cassava contaminated by aflatoxins, you can easily notice a greyish blackish mold. A maize porridge with a sour taste can be an indication of fungi contamination.

Apart from consuming aflatoxins contaminated food, one can also get aflatoxins into their system by consuming the meat of an animal that has fed on contaminated produce such as hay, seeds, corn or millet.

Aflatoxins consumed by the animal can be excreted in milk, meat and eggs, making them all poisonous.

The harmful effects caused by Aflatoxins include liver damage, liver cancer, mental impairment, abdominal pain, vomiting, convulsions, pulmonary edema, hemorrhaging, stunted growth in children, weakened immune system, coma and death.

The extent to which a person is affected by Aflatoxins depends on several factors such as age, gender, level and duration of exposure, environmental factors and strength of immune system.

Aflatoxin poisoning has always been a massive problem in Africa, causing a loss of $450 million worth of farmed goods, that is about Sh 985 billion.

The growth of these fungi can be limited by proper drying and storage of food produce. Educating farmers with proper techniques is key to solving the aflatoxin crisis in Africa.

Nonetheless, there is an innovative solution to protecting crops out in the field. This involves deliberately introducing a non-toxic form of aspergillus commonly known as Aflasafe.

This causes competitive inhibition between the two strains in which case the toxic strain eventually gets displaced.

This cost-effective method has worked well in Nigeria causing a reduction of up to 85 percent of aflatoxin contamination.