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Sunflower seeds traced as source of mold, liver carcinogen

The frequent occurrence of aflatoxin, a toxin produced by Aspergillus molds, in sunflower seeds increases health risks in low-income countries.

By Amy Wallace
Michigan State University researchers have shown that sunflower seeds are frequently contaminated with a toxin produced by molds and pose an increased health risk in many low-income countries worldwide. Photo courtesy of Michigan State University
Michigan State University researchers have shown that sunflower seeds are frequently contaminated with a toxin produced by molds and pose an increased health risk in many low-income countries worldwide. Photo courtesy of Michigan State University

April 21 (UPI) -- A study from Michigan State University showed that sunflower seeds are frequently contaminated with a toxin produced by molds that pose a health risk.

Researchers found a toxin produced by Aspergillus molds known as aflatoxin, which commonly affect corn, peanuts, pistachios and almonds, in sunflower seeds. This was one of the first studies to find aflatoxin in sunflower seeds. Aflatoxin is one of the most potent liver carcinogens known.

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Researchers conducted the study in Tanzania, however, chronic exposure to aflatoxin in peanuts and corn is a global issue and causes roughly 25,000 to 155,000 deaths worldwide annually.

"These high aflatoxin levels, in a commodity frequently consumed by the Tanzanian population, indicate that local authorities must implement interventions to prevent and control aflatoxin contamination along with sunflower commodity value chain, to enhance food and feed safety in Tanzania," Gale Strasburg, MSU food science and human nutrition professor, said in a press release. "Follow-up research is needed to determine intake rates of sunflower seed products in humans and animals, to inform exposure assessments and to better understand the role of sunflower seeds and cakes as a dietary aflatoxin source."

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Researchers analyzed aflatoxin levels of seeds and cakes in seven regions of Tanzania in 2014 and 2015, finding nearly 60 percent of seed samples and 80 percent of cake samples had aflatoxin contamination.

"Billions of people worldwide are exposed to aflatoxin in their diets, particularly in places where food is not monitored regularly for contaminants," said Felicia Wu, professor of Food Science and Human Nutrition and Agricultural, Food and Resource Economics at MSU. "Our previous work with the World Health Organization on the global burden of foodborne disease showed that aflatoxin is one of the chemical contaminants that causes the greatest disease burden worldwide."

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration considers foods with 20 parts per billion of aflatoxin or less as safe for consumption.

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The study was published in PLOS One.

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