Why You Should Always Check Food Certificates for Aflatoxins When Sourcing Ingredients
Discover the dangers of aflatoxins in foods, understand their effects on human health, and learn about why they are more common in developing countries than in developed countries.
Prevalence of Aflatoxins in Foods
Aflatoxins are mycotoxins (toxic secondary metabolic products) that are produced by fungi in foods.1 Aspergillus flavus and A. parasiticus are the strains most commonly known to afflict a list of agricultural crops around the world, including peanuts, tree nuts, and corn.2,3 Whether while still on the field, during harvest, or as a result of poor storage conditions, contamination poses a threat at various stages along the supply chain.4 Furthermore, the hazards for humans are not limited to the direct consumption of these products. Individuals handling foods contaminated with aflatoxins are also at risk.5 Likewise, contaminated animal feed can lead to a more passive form of human exposure via the consumption of resulting meat or dairy products.6
Long-term exposure to high levels of aflatoxins can have catastrophic effects on human health. While aflatoxins can target a number of organs in the body, they are known to be especially hepatotoxic in humans.7 In short, they go for the liver. Numerous studies have shown that many cases of hepatic cirrhosis (liver damage) and hepatocellular carcinoma (liver cancer) correlate directly with acute or chronic exposure to aflatoxins.8,9 As a result, the World Health Agency’s (WHO) International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has classified them as Group 1 carcinogens.10
In 2006, Dr T. Colin Campbell and Thomas M. Campbell II’s publication, The China Study, unveiled research that shook the scientific community. Essentially, they proved that high-protein—specifically high animal protein—diets made people who are exposed to aflatoxins more susceptible to liver cancer than their low-protein alias plant protein consuming counterparts.11 Their initial research was prompted by the discovery of unusually high cancer rates in children in the Philippines, which specifically observed higher risk for children from wealthier families. Furthermore, the publication goes on to cite a study in India in which aflatoxins were administered to rats. Dr Campbell writes, “Incredibly, every single animal that consumed the 20% protein diet had evidence of liver cancer, and every single animal that consumed a 5% protein diet avoided liver cancer. It was a 100 to 0 score.”12
Aflatoxins in Developed vs. Developing Countries
Over the years, research has also unveiled a drastic difference in the prevalence of aflatoxins in crops in developed versus developing countries. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), crops in more economically developed nations, such as many EU member states, undergo more rigorous routine screenings than in emerging ones.13 Moreover, the European Commission (EC) imposes strict regulations on a wide range of imported foods from all over the world. For aflatoxins, the EC’s list is long.14 It includes everything from Brazil nuts from Brazil to pistachios from Iran, groundnuts from China to peanut butter from India. Imported foods that surpass the maximum levels of aflatoxins or fail to produce the right certification to customs are confiscated and destroyed at the border.15,16 In developing nations, on the other hand, the prevalence of aflatoxins in foods is not solely attributed to harvesting and storage techniques of commercial crops.17 The CDC also cites significantly higher numbers of homegrown foods, most of which never undergo screenings for aflatoxin prevalence.18 And from 2004 to 2005, a rural area in Kenya witnessed one of the most widespread aflatoxicosis outbreaks in history as a result of precisely these practices.19
According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) a whopping 317 individuals fell ill from homegrown corn over the two-year period.20 And 30% of those afflicted passed away as a result. Laboratory results later attributed the outbreak to an average aflatoxin concentration of 354 ng/g.21 In February 2018, the WHO’s Department of Food Safety and Zoonoses published figures in their Food Safety Digest that demonstrate the extent to which average aflatoxin exposures differ throughout the world. “In developed countries, mean aflatoxin dietary exposures are generally less than 1 ng/kg body weight (bw) per day (a nanogram is one billionth [1×10−9] of a gram), whereas estimates for some sub-Saharan African countries exceed 100 ng/kg bw per day.”22 Though the spectrum these numbers reveal is shocking, WHO underlines that more data from sub-Saharan African countries would be required to back these figures up scientifically.
Certifications at foodcircle
Sound complex and alarming? It is. Thankfully, the regular quality checks undertaken by our trusted suppliers guarantee that all our ingredients meet the EU’s rigorous regulations on aflatoxin levels. For more information, please refer to the individual certificates on our product pages. Our team is always happy to initiate additional laboratory testing for ingredients in our catalogue at your request.
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