What you need to know about aflatoxin

Maize and groundnuts are the major crops prone to Aflatoxin. [Photo Courtesy]

Five maize flour brands were banned by the Kenya Bureau of Standards (Kebs) over a high level of aflatoxins. 

Kebs warned the public against consuming Dola, Jembe, Kifaru, Starehe and 210 maize brands.

But, what is aflatoxin?

One online encyclopedia defines aflatoxins as “poisonous carcinogens that are produced by certain moulds which grow in soil, decaying vegetation, hay, and grains.”

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The poison is not formed as a result of poor storage of the farm products as most people think but is rather produced by tiny organisms called fungi that are found almost everywhere in the soil.

Scientifically, the main culprit is known as Aspergillus flavus, though its close relatives are implicated too.

The very tiny organisms infect the crops while they are growing, and lives inside food from the harvesting period, storage until it is cooked and eaten, according to Aflasafe.

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In its website, Aflasafe, an organisation that provides a safe, natural solution to the problem of aflatoxin, says the poison affects a quarter of the world’s food supply and it is common in warm and tropical countries.

Maize and groundnuts are the major crops prone to Aflatoxin but cassava, sorghum, sesame, rice, and nuts can also be affected.

SEE ALSO :17 maize flour brands banned over high aflatoxin levels

Notably, animals might also consume it and their products like milk, eggs, and meat can also be contaminated.

Breastfeeding mothers who have consumed the toxin for a long time can also pass it to their infants through the milk.

Aflatoxins do not cause immediate harm since it takes a large amount to affect the body but the quantity builds up gradually and eventually causes cancer. 

 “Levels that are considered safe to eat are equivalent to no more than about one gram of toxin – less than a spoonful – in 100,000 kilograms of food – enough to make dinner for a small city,” says Aflasafe.

How to spot aflatoxin

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Colourless, aflatoxin cannot be spotted physically, either by sight or smell which is why most people consume it unknowingly.

Aflasafe says that sometimes the fungus that produces it can show up as a surface mould but that is not a visible sign of contamination.

“However, it is still a good idea to avoid any food that looks mouldy,” advises Alfasafe.

Secondly, according to the organisation, aflatoxin is odourless and contaminated food does have any bad smell.

“Aflatoxin does not stand out, so buying food that looks and smells good will not help much,” says Aflasafe.

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Lastly, the poison is tasteless and even highly contaminated food will just taste as delicious as you cook it.

Therefore, the only way to ascertain that food is contaminated with Aflatoxin is by conducting laboratory tests.

The poison is measured in parts per billion (ppb).

As Alfasafe puts it, “that is a bit like looking for a busload of escaped convicts in a crowd containing the entire population of Africa.”

Insecure market

According to Alfasafe, if you have shopped for maize ten times, then you are likely to have purchased contaminated maize in four of those times.

 Effects on the body

Aflatoxin deaths are very rare, however, consumption of a large amount of contaminated food can be deadly.

It causes liver cancer and according to Alfasafe’s research, three out of ten people with liver cancer in Africa is as a result of the toxin.

 “In the aflatoxin hotspots of Mozambique, you are sixty times more likely to suffer liver cancer than if you live in the USA.”

Just like HIV/AIDs, aflatoxin suppresses the immune system and weakens the body against other diseases and vaccines.

The toxins make it difficult for the body to digest food since it damages the intestines.

Some researchers have linked the toxin to the inadequate supply of essential nutrients in the body resulting in malnutrition.?

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