Complementary food for infants in developing countries, especially where corn is a staple food, should be protected against the mycotoxin fumonisin, according to an international team of scientists.
The study was published in The Journal Molecular Nutrition and Food Research and explored the association between exposure of fumonisins from maize and growth retardation among infants in Tanzania.
The scientists of the Institute of Tropical Medicine Antwerp and their colleagues of the Tanzania Food and Drugs Authority and Gent University claim this is the first time an association has been established between fumonisin and stunting/ weight.
It was found that at 12 months of age, infants exposed to fumonisins intakes through their corn flour based complementary food above the WHO provisional maximum tolerable daily intake of 2 μg/kg bodyweight were significantly shorter by 1.3 cm and 328 g lighter than their counterparts.
Until now, physicians thought the growth retardation of children in developing countries was due to the poor nutritional value of the maize porridge they receive when breast milk is no longer sufficient, but the scientists now point to mycotoxins as a factor contributing to these problems.
Mycotoxins are contaminants produced by fungi which enter the food chain through infectedcrops that are either consumed directly by humans or indirectly as a result of their being an animal feed ingredient.
According to the researchers, previously little attention was paid to mycotoxins in food, apart from aflatoxin – carcinogenic fungal toxins that are common contaminants of cereals and nuts.
Fumonisin enters the food chain through fungi growing on maize, the staple food in Tanzania – and in many other parts of the world. The fungus can be present without being visible to the untrained eye and can be prevented by correct storage of the maize.
In 2004, the same researchers reported that improving the nutritional quality of complementary foods does not reduce stunting and underweight in Tanzanian toddlers.
These findings raised questions about the management of malnutrition by international aid organisations. The research team then investigated other possible causes of poor growth such as when maize porridge is introduced if breastfeeding is not a suitable option.
With the knowledge that aflatoxin had been linked to impair child growth in Benin and Togo, the researchers explored other fungal toxins that could end up in maize based complementary foods.
European ‘yardstick’ test
This October two analytical methods to measure mycotoxins in infant food were adopted as the European benchmark test by the European Committee for Standardisation (CEN). Such methods could indicate a potential solution for the screening of such toxins identified by the scientists.
The analyses, developed by the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre (JRC), will ensure that laboratories across the globe are able to synchronise their working practices when testing for the contaminants.
The methods were developed to measure aflatoxin B1 and zearalenone mycotoxins in cereal products for infants and young children.
These lab tests, created under the leadership of Dr J. Stroka of the EU Reference Laboratory for Mycotoxins at the JRC’s Institute for Reference Materials and Measurements (IRMM) came into force as national standards last month.
The JRC said the analyses were significant because of the relative vulnerability of infants to mycotoxins because of their relatively high intake of food products in relation to their bodyweight.
The body said its development of quality assurance tools helps labs meet EU regulations on ensuring contaminants in foods do not exceed maximum limits.
Source: Molecular Nutrition & Food Research (2010)
“Fumonisin exposure through maize in complementary foods is inversely associated with linear growth of infants in Tanzania”
Authors: M. E Kimanya, B. De Meulenaer, D. Roberfroid, C. Lachat, and P. Kolsteren