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Arnold School of Public Health

Researchers find unsafe levels of mold toxins in foods commonly given to infants and toddlers in India

February 28, 2019 | Erin Bluvas,

Complementary feeding may pose a risk of exposure to both aflatoxin M1 and deoxynivalenol (i.e., toxins produced by certain fungi) for Indian infants and toddlers (ages 0-2), according to recent research from the University of South Carolina. The study, published in Food and Chemical Toxicology, was conducted in environmental health sciences (ENHS) assistant professor Anindya Chanda’s Integrative Mycology Lab in collaboration with ENHS clinical professor and chair Geoff Scott and associate professor James Burch (epidemiology and biostatistics) at the Arnold School of Public Health along with assistant professor Paramita Chakraborty (statistics) and Carolina Distinguished Professor Qian Wang (chemistry and biochemistry) in the College of Arts and Sciences.

In a mini-survey of 29 different foods produced by 21 different Indian manufacturers, the researchers examined the samples for the presence of various aflatoxins and deoxynivalenol. Purchased from local markets in Kolkata, India, these foods (e.g., formula, sugar, rice, bran, wheat, corn) are commonly used in formula and baby food products for the complementary feeding of infants and toddlers in India.

“Our analyses show that 100 percent of the samples contained aflatoxin M1 at levels 30 to 120 times higher than the recommended European Union levels and 15 to 60 times higher than the recommended levels in India,” says Chanda, who notes that the presence of aflatoxin M1 in milk-based foods suggests high contamination of cattle feeds. “We also found that 66 percent of the samples contained detectable concentrations of deoxynivalenol, with seven percent of the samples exceeding European Union guidelines for baby food products and more than 50 percent at levels that can lead to dietary intake higher than the levels recommended by the joint Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and World Health Organization (WHO) expert committee on food additives.”

The contamination of crops and food by mycotoxins (i.e., naturally occurring toxins produced by certain molds/fungi) is a global public health issue. India and neighboring Southeastern Asian countries are at higher risk to mycotoxin contamination due to their temperature and humidity conditions, which are conducive to the optimum growth of mycotoxin-producing fungi. When humidity exceeds 13 percent and the temperature ranges from 25 °C and 35 °C, for example, these areas face enormous contamination problems, with Indian standing crops and food grains among the most vulnerable—particularly during tidal floods coupled with tropical temperatures during the monsoon season. 

As two of the most prevalent foodborne mycotoxins in Indian food products, aflatoxins and deoxynivalenol have significant impacts on human and animal (e.g., livestock) health. According to WHO, the health risks range from acute poisoning to long-term effects (e.g., immune deficiency, cancer).

Further, ongoing climate changes, the rise of temperatures and flash floods, suggest that food contamination will increase as the elimination of mycotoxins becomes increasingly challenging.

“Our results suggest that complementary feeding of the commercially available baby food in Indian markets can put Indian infants and toddlers at risk for simultaneous exposures to aflatoxin M1 and deoxynivalenol,” says Chanda. “These findings warrant urgent, in-depth research to track, increase surveillance and reduce mycotoxin contamination of baby foods manufactured in India.”

These next steps include identifying the mechanisms and routes through which mycotoxin contamination occurs to better understand the role of changing climates, insecticide/pesticide applications, manufacturing processes, etc. In their ongoing research, the authors are investigating the effects of co-exposure to multiple mycotoxins. Future studies should also focus on tracking the sources of mycotoxin contaminations to provide a framework for food manufacturers and regulatory agencies in India and other developing nations to combat mycotoxin contamination in raw materials.

“Our team has researchers from the Arnold School and the College of Arts and Sciences with complementary expertise, and this makes us uniquely effective while working together on such food monitoring initiatives,” says Chanda. “Our common goal is to ensure regulation and prevention of mycotoxins in baby foods and minimize the detrimental impacts of foodborne mycotoxins on the health of children worldwide.”


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