Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Peanut Butter Recall

Many people have eaten peanut butter as a staple for decades. This food has long been a staple of our culture as well as others because of its convenience, taste, and the unwavering belief held by people that it is a health food. Now, thousands and thousands of peanut products are being recalled off the shelves in stores due to an outbreak of Salmonella Typhimurium.

How does Salmonella get into peanut butter? There are various possibilities. One is due to cross-contamination of machinery or equipment. Salmonella comes from unsanitary conditions in processing of meat and meat products (i.e., feces) - notably from animals raised in confined environments such as factory farms (the bulk source from where meat originates). Another possibility is contaminated water sources.

In 2007, Agribusiness giant Conagra, which produces the well-known Peter Pan peanut butter, was required by the FDA to pull products off the shelves. Because of the widespread use of peanut butter in so many products, consumers are being told to remove anything containing this substance - desserts, toppings, ice cream, cookies, crackers, and many others.

For years it has been commonly known by the public that prior to the peanut butter recall, peanuts were the culprit of allergies in many people. Its negative effects on human health have, in recent years, become widespread. Why? The simple answer is that peanuts contain a substance known as aflatoxin - an allergen which is basically a fungus. Aflatoxin is a naturally occurring mycotoxin produced by two types of mold: Aspergillus flavus and Aspergillus parasiticus. Aflatoxins have also been found in corn, wheat, rice, milk, and tree nuts.

According to Medicine.Net, Aflatoxins are a particular problem in underdeveloped and developing countries. There is some suggestion that the levels of aflatoxin consumption determine whether or not a reaction will occur - in other words, the more the aflatoxin is consumed, the higher the health risk is found to be.

Because peanuts and peanut-flavoring is such a ubiquitous substance in so many foods, it is no wonder allergies have become an issue for so many. Although levels of aflatoxins in one serving of peanut butter eaten might be relatively low, the frequency with which those products are eaten can cause health problems due to the fact that its consumption is repeated and frequent by humans.

According to the Cornell University Department of Animal Science, "because aflatoxins, especially aflatoxin B1, are potent carcinogens in some animals, there is interest in the effects of long-term exposure to low levels of these important mycotoxins on humans . In 1988, the IARC placed aflatoxin B1 on the list of human carcinogens. This is supported by a number of epidemiological studies done in Asia and Africa that have demonstrated a positive association between dietary aflatoxins and Liver Cell Cancer (LCC) . Additionally, the expression of aflatoxin-related diseases in humans may be influenced by factors such as age, sex, nutritional status, and/or concurrent exposure to other causative agents such as viral hepatitis (HBV) or parasite infestation."

As with most food recalls, mainstream, conventional methods in which foods are produced in the modern world are prone to harboring bacteria, toxins, and illness which make people sick and can even cause death. This is not new information. But mainstream news and health resources don't emphasize this fact at all. In most cases, food raised organically and sustainably will not harm people. Over and over again we are witnessing recalls of food in environments which are not sustainable nor truly organic. In the case of peanuts, however, even organic peanut butter can be harmful because organic peanuts contain even more levels of aflatoxtins than the conventional variety. Conventional processing of peanuts removes more aflatoxin content than organic. But does that make conventional peanuts safe to consume? Clearly not, as we are seeing today with thousands of peanut products being pulled off the shelves.

When the peanut recall is over, should you return to eating peanut butter? Many companies maintain that when nuts are roasted, that process sufficiently kills harmful bacteria. Should you take a chance that the bacteria has finally died because the product just so happened to be exposed to high enough levels of heat that it was enough to kill harmful bacteria like salmonella (or maybe not?)?

The choice is yours, but with all the available evidence of harmful effects from eating peanuts - as well as other highly-processed foods, the decision about intelligent health seems resoundingly irrefutable. Eating whole, organic, and sustainable-produced foods should keep you out of the doctor's office. But with conventional food, it's really all just a crap shoot.

For a good alternative to peanut butter, consider almond butter. Look for raw, organic almond butter in your local health food store, as the roasted varieties are often pasteurized and/or contain irradiated almonds. Other types of spreadable butter include cashew and hazelnut.

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