Would you eat a fistful of fungus? The mere thought of it fills us with utter disgust.
How about chocolates then?
Chocolates are not only tempting and delicious but offer convenience as well because they are easy to handle and can be eaten anywhere anytime as an expression of joviality and refreshment.
Tantalizing our tastebuds, these seemingly harmless bits of happiness are in fact not so friendly to our health. Contamination of chocolates by mycotoxins is a matter of great concern which has not received its due share of attention.
Mycotoxins consist of a diverse group of compounds which are widespread in nature and are produced by certain species of fungus. They are of many kinds, out of which aflatoxins (AFs) and ochratoxin A (OTA) are of great significance mainly due to their adverse health impacts on humans.
Aflatoxins are produced as secondary metabolites mainly by Aspergillus flavus and Aspergillus parasiticus . These Aflatoxins – because of their toxicity – are classed as carcinogenic and mutagenic compounds by International Agency of Research on Cancer (IARC). Their growth by responsible fungi is not only restricted to pre-harvest time but can also be seen at post-harvest stages which include the times of storage and transportation. This unique characteristic makes them the most challenging mycotoxins that humans have ever come across. Because of their ability to sustain themselves, these highly ‘stable compounds’ are not even completely destroyed during the food processing operations and therefore increase the risk of contaminating the finished products- chocolate being one of them.
Ochratoxin A (OTA), on the other hand, are produced by secondary metabolism of many filamentous species of fungus belonging to the genera Aspergillus and Penicillium. Harmful health impacts associated with OTA include; damage to cells of the kidney, malformation of an embryo or fetus, damage to nervous system, damage to liver cells, reduction of the efficacy of immune system and many more.
Moisture is crucial for the growth and production of mycotoxins. Although in chocolates there is not enough water to support microbial growth and mycotoxin production but the raw materials such as cocoa- the main ingredient used in the manufacturing of chocolates- is the cause of the proliferation of toxigenic fungi. Cocoa beans are contaminated by fungi during the pre-processing stages at the farms. The process of storage and handling may initiate the production of mycotoxins in cocoa. Sun-drying these beans specifically increase the risks of contamination as there is still enough water to support the growth and development of mycotoxins. Pakistan has a warm and humid climate, therefore, the likelihood of the occurrence of dangerous mycotoxins are more predictable in the food.
Despite various research studies being done worldwide on food contamination by mycotoxins, a negligible piece of information is available in Pakistan on mycotoxin contamination in chocolates.
The unchecked quality of food in Pakistan is raising serious concerns. Relevant departments of the government are least interested in diagnosing the causes of environmental pollutants which are threatening our environment and health. The casual attitude of people towards the consumption of food makes them more vulnerable to toxicity.
Especially, when it comes to issues of environmental safety and health, people ignore the dangers of specific products because of the time they might take to reveal their precarious effects. It is the need of time to raise awareness among people by educating them about the hazards of mycotoxins and other food contaminants. Environmentalists and state machinery should intervene to keep a check on the adverse issues of food contamination. Above all, we should mend our ways as well. Afterall, our health should be ‘our own’ priority.