Aflatoxins characteristics and properties

Definition, dangers and characteristics of aflatoxins

What are aflatoxins?

Aflatoxins are toxic substances found in food, mainly in dried seeds and tropical spices. These are produced by fungi that grow in food during processing and storage, called toxicogenic fungi or molds.

When certain fruits are not stored in good conditions (warehouses with temperatures between 25 and 30ºC, with humidity values ​​above 80%, with ventilation problems and lack of light), there is a danger that molds coming from the fields can develop in food, which can be responsible of producing mycotoxins .

These substances are toxic to the human organism. There are different types, and some of them are very harmful, such as aflatoxins.

Harmful effects of aflatoxins in health

photo spices market
Spices in a market. Ambient humidity and heat favor the growth of fungi that produce aflatoxins

Aflatoxins are a type of mycotoxin. Among all mycotoxins, aflatoxins, which are the waste products that are mainly made by fungi of the Aspergillus genus, are especially harmful.

Aflatoxins have proven to be very harmful to health, both in people and animals, for their toxic effects on the nervous and immune system and their role in the development of liver cancer.

Peanuts, for example, stored in poor conditions, are likely to develop  Aspergillus that produce aflatoxins.

Dangers of aflatoxins

Many studies have been conducted on this subject, after the famous chicken poisoning in England where, in the late 60s, there was a high mortality after these animals ate feed contaminated with these fungi.

A very significant study was conducted in Holland where the number of cancers developed in workers who obtained oil from peanut was investigated. Peanut or peanut is a legume that usually develops this toxin when stored in poor conditions.

The results showed a three times higher incidence of cancer than other groups that did not work in the same activity.

Properties of aflatoxins
Main properties of aflatoxins, which have harmful effects on the liver. The foods that contain them are mainly corn and peanut.

Types of aflatoxins

There are approximately 20 different types of aflatoxins, the four main ones are:

  • Aflatoxin B1: It is considered the worst, the most toxic, and is the one that is directly related to the increased risk of cancer. This type of aflatoxin can lead to aflatoxin M1, which can be passed to the baby through breastfeeding. Dairy products contain certain amounts of aflatoxins due to the presence of these substances in their feed.
  • Aflatoxin B2
  • Aflatoxin G1
  • Atoxin G2

Why are aflatoxins toxic?

Aflatoxins are very small non-protein substances, much smaller than the toxins produced by bacteria. Therefore, they are difficult to detect in conventional food tests and are also very difficult to detect by our immune system. All this makes us more vulnerable to its harmful effects.

Were to find  aflatoxins?

Peanut is one of the foods with more aflatoxins

Nuts, seeds and tropical spices are especially sensitive to mold contamination. Among the richest in aflatoxins are the following:

Tropical spices:

Tropical spices thave a greater amount of aflatoxins: cayenne, paprika and chili peppers (Capsicum spp.), turmeric, galangal, ginger, nutmeg, pepper.

– Dehydrated tender fruits:

– Dairy products:

Aflatoxins M1 pass into breast milk and are found in milk and especially in cheese.

Poorly preserved foods have more aflatoxins

Nutmeg in a market
Nutmeg and mace drying in the sun. Poor hygiene during the processing of spices makes them very vulnerable to the generation of many mycotoxins in these foods over time.

Aflatoxins do not develop only in nuts but on any other food of vegetable or animal origin that is kept dry for a long time, in conditions of humidity and temperature that favor the growth of toxigenic fungi.

Foods that are poorly packaged, poorly preserved or expired contain more aflatoxins. Therefore it is recommended to buy properly packaged food and in establishments that maintain maximum hygiene with their products.

Regulatory bodies in each country set maximum permitted levels of aflatoxins in food, but once these foods have entered the country, poorly preserved seeds or spices contain more mycotoxins than the maximum allowed.

For this reason it is important to buy properly packaged foods, which means that quality controls have passed and that they have low aflatoxin levels.

How to eliminate aflatoxins, prevention and disinfection

Health administrations consider that aflatoxins are inevitable contaminants in food and that certain levels of them are tolerable and do not harm health.

The EC considers that levels of these substances between 2 0 4 mcg per kilogram have no negative effect on health and, therefore, these foods can be eaten safely.

In theory, health administrations carry out exhaustive analyzes to check the level of aflatoxins in food. In practice, many analyzes carried out have demonstrated the presence of these toxins in many foods commonly sold in the market, especially in those that came from countries where the products are poorly controlled sanitary, which forced to withdraw whole items .

Tips to buy securely

Bulk legumes should be consumed in a short time. If possible, it is not recommended to store the seeds for a long time

Therefore, we must be cautious when buying or eating these foods, and above all, keep them in the highest hygiene conditions. The best measures to avoid this contamination would be:

  • Buy these products properly packaged: the expiration date, place of manufacture, responsible company, etc. must be known.
  • Reject those fruits that have molds, are very dry or with abnormal colors.
  • Do not let them get rancid. Consume as soon as possible once opened and keep them in suitable containers, dry and away from sources of heat.
  • Do not consume spices or seeds after their expiration date.
  • Try to buy packaged seeds, avoiding buying food in bulk that we will keep for a long time.

punto rojo More information on aflatoxins

This article was endorsed by Elisenda Carballido - Dietitian nutritionist. Postgraduate in Phytotherapy and master in Nutrition and Metabolism.
Written by Editorial Botanical-online team in charge of content writing

18 September, 2019

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