Q: You didn’t mention aflatoxin in your recent article on peanuts. Should I be concerned?
A: No. Peanuts sold in the U.S. are not considered a problem. Still, you should keep them in a cool, dry place and avoid any that are moldy, shriveled or discolored.
Produced by the mold Aspergillus flavus, aflatoxin can occur in nuts, legumes, seeds, corn, wheat and other crops, as well as some spices, such as chili and paprika. Extreme heat and drought before harvest, as well as moist, humid storage conditions, increase susceptibility. This naturally occurring toxin can cause serious liver damage in humans and is a liver carcinogen, at least in some lab animals.
Aspergillus is widespread in nature, found in soil, hay and decaying vegetation. But farmers and food processors minimize its growth by following good management practices. Moreover, the United States Department of Agriculature (USDA) monitors crops for aflatoxin, while the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) routinely samples peanut products to make sure they don’t exceed maximum allowable levels.
Though some experts are concerned about chronic low-level exposure to aflatoxin, the small amounts commonly consumed in the U.S. pose little risk, according to the FDA. Aflatoxin is a bigger threat in developing countries, such as Kenya, where outbreaks of acute poisoning (aflatoxicosis) have occurred and where high intakes of aflatoxin have been linked to liver cancer. There have been no reported cases of aflatoxicosis in the U.S.
By the way, preliminary research from Johns Hopkins University suggests that a chlorophyll compound in green vegetables like spinach may inhibit aflatoxin’s carcinogenic effects. So may phytochemicals in celery, carrots, parsnips and related vegetables, according to a study published in Food and Chemical Toxicology.