Aflatoxins: Toxin, Toxic Chemical and Carcinogen in Peanut Butter

Aflatoxins are toxic chemicals that are naturally occurring mycotoxins which are by-products of many species of Aspergillus, a fungus, the most notable ones being Aspergillus paraciticus. These toxic chemicals were discovered from early research studies of A. flavus toxins. Aflatoxins are a group of mycotoxins which research studies have shown to possess pro-carcinogenic and mutagenic properties on the human immune system. These toxic chemicals are among the most deadly carcinogenic toxic materials known to man. They have been classified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), the US National Toxicology Program, and the American Society for Cancer as a Group 1 human carcinogen.

As a toxic chemical in household products, Aflatoxins can be found in milk products from animals that have been fed contaminated grains. These toxic chemicals can also be found in processed farm products such as cassava, chilies, corn, cotton seeds, millet, rice and sorghum. These carcinogenic materials can find their way into processed milk and meat. The most common household product in which aflatoxins are found is peanut butter. Virtually all peanut butters contain minute quantities of aflatoxins which are below the Food and Drug Agency (FDA) recommended safe level. Aflatoxin contamination has tightly regulated, especially in the US. For example, the maximum level for aflatoxins in peanut butter by the US Commerce department is 20 parts per billion (ppb).

Aflatoxins are of various forms. These carcinogens are classified as:

1.       Aflatoxin B1 (AFB1)
2.       Aflatoxin M1 (AFM1), and
3.       Aflatoxin G1 (AFG1)

Aflatoxin B1 is the carcinogen responsible for cancer in humans while Aflatoxin M1 and G1 are the animal carcinogenic forms of the aflatoxins.

Research studies have shown that when small amounts of aflatoxins are consumed over a long period of time, individuals can experience chronic aflatoxicosis which can occur with as little as 1 ppb. Absorption into the blood is through the gut. These toxic chemicals can spread to body tissues, liver, gastrointestinal tract, and the respiratory, reproductive, immune and nervous systems. The liver is believed to contain the highest concentration of aflatoxins (about 10x higher than that in the muscles). While in the liver, these toxic chemicals metabolize, and are hydroxylated into the carcinogenic form. This process can cause hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) or liver cancer.

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