Mycotoxins: Peanut problems repeatedly sicken Americans

Date of publication : 1/20/2009
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For years, this food has topped the most common allergens list, is banned in many school lunchrooms across the U.S., and now is at the center of an extremely serious - and in some cases, deadly - strain of salmonella. The food in question? Peanuts.

Thought to have started in late-October, the peanut-based salmonella outbreak has so far sickened more than 470 people in 43 states. FDA officials are currently focusing their investigation on a peanut processing plant in Georgia, which distributes peanut-based products directly to manufacturers including the Kellogg Company and its affiliates, Austin and Keebler. The Peanut Corporation of America, which owns the Georgia plant, has issued a recall for all peanut butter produced at the plant since August 8, and all peanut paste - an ingredient in cookies, cakes and other foods - manufactured after September 25.

While the current salmonella outbreak has certainly pushed peanuts into the limelight as a source of toxins, it should be noted that peanuts actually harbor a type of mold that, when ingested, can prove harmful. Specifically, peanuts are susceptible to a type of mold that produces a mycotoxin called aflatoxin, a carcinogen that is associated with increased cancer in rodent models and has been shown to increase liver cancer mortality in humans. In a second study, meanwhile, exposure to aflatoxin resulted in stunted growth in a cohort of children from West Africa.

While the mechanism for these side-effects is not fully understood, the FDA monitors aflatoxin - which develops when peanuts, cereals and other grains are stored improperly and left susceptible to mold -to ensure that toxin levels do not exceed "norms" (whatever that might be!). However, it's not yet clear how much is too much to cause harm or whether long-term exposure to the toxin can cause the same results.

With all these various risks, it seems counterintuitive to continue slathering peanut butter on your morning toast (especially when almond butter is just as delicious and so much healthier!) As such, we'd recommend that you heed the salmonella warnings and use these recalls to phase peanut butter and its various products out of your pantry permanently!

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