Aflatoxin is a type of mycotoxin produced by Aspergillus. Aspergillus is found on soil, decaying vegetation, dirt, hay, and on rotten grain products. Then it invades organic substrates when favorable conditions for its growth are reached. That will include increased temperature and increased moisture content. Aspergillus flavus and Aspergillus parasiticus are the most common types that produce the toxin. This toxin is probably the most famous and widely studied mycotoxin because of its known carcinogenic effect in animals and acute toxicological effects in humans.
Aflatoxins have been the identified cause of various diseases, such as Aflatoxicosis, both in animals and humans worldwide. Its occurrence actually varies because of different environmental factors, thus the extent of contamination also varies with location and agricultural practices. Aflatoxin is a huge problem mainly in underdeveloped countries where proper harvesting and storage of susceptible products are not practiced.
How was it discovered?
During the 1960’s, it was previously known as “Turkey X disease.” But it was later discovered that ducklings and young pheasants were also affected. The disease caused serious mortality to these animals. In an investigation conducted, it was found out that the feeds, namely Brazilian peanut meal is the culprit of the disease. Scientists speculated that it was caused by a toxin produced by a fungus. In the year 1961, it was identified that the fungus producing the toxin is Aspergillus flavus. The toxin was then named “Aflatoxin.” The discovery led many research and experiments to better understand how the toxin affects human and animals
Where is it mostly found?
- Peanut butter
- Tree nuts like Pecan
- Processed foods
- Animal feeds
However, the products with the highest risk of acquiring aflatoxin are corn, peanuts, and cottonseed. It is because most contamination happens when these products are not allowed to dry properly thus providing good grounds for fungus growth.
How does Aflatoxin affect Human?
It can cause aflatoxicosis. It is the poisoning which results from ingestion of foods contaminated with aflatoxin. Although not usually seen in humans, there are already reported cases from third world countries like Uganda and India, and many others. This can cause the following:
- Nausea and vomiting
- Abdominal pain
- Pulmonary edema
- Cerebral edema
- Liver damage
- Liver cancer
And if no immediate treatment is done, consumption of large amount of aflatoxin can eventually lead to coma and death.
How can it be avoided?
Although aflatoxins are known dangerous to humans, Food and Drug Administration (FDA) allows them in low levels because they are actually “unavoidable contaminants.” We just have to take precautionary measures to not consume large amounts. Some points are:
- Be meticulous in choosing your foods like peanut butter, milk, yogurt, and other products. You go with trusted brands.
- Always inspect food before consumption. Look for growth of molds. And when in doubt, just consider them contaminated and dispose.
- Handle nuts, cereals, rice, cheese, corn and other products properly. Keep them on storage areas where they will not accumulate enough moisture to avoid fungal growth.