An international team of scientists is calling for protecting complementary food for infants in developing countries, especially those where corn is a staple food, against fumonisin, a toxin produced by fungi.
Until now, physicians thought the growth retardation of children in those regions was to be blamed on the poor nutritional value of the complementary maize porridge they receive when breast milk is no longer sufficient. But toxins indeed are involved, the scientists reported recently in the journal Molecular Nutrition and Food Research.
The recommendation was made by scientists at the Institute of Tropical Medicine Antwerp in Belgium, and their colleagues at the Tanzania Food and Drugs Authority and Gent University, also in Belgium. Until now, not much attention was paid to mycotoxins (toxins produced by fungi) in food, with the exception of aflatoxin, which is known for causing nuts to become moldy.
Ugali and cabbage. Ugali is a cornmeal product and a staple starch component of many African meals. Research has found that maize used to make this dish can contain mycotoxins.
But their research in rural Tanzania connects fumonisin, a mycotoxin, with stunted growth and below-normal weights in children. It is the first time this association has been made, according to a statement from the Institute of Tropical Medicine.
Worldwide, one in three children suffer from growth retardation and one in four is underweight. The problems of stunting and underweight are associated with over 5 million deaths of children less than 5 years old annually. Seventy percent of these deaths are concentrated in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. Malnutrition is implicated in the majority of these deaths.
In 2004, the same researchers reported that improving the nutritional quality of complementary foods does not reduce stunting and underweight in Tanzanian toddlers. This raises questions about the actual management of malnutrition by international aid organizations.
So, the research team went looking for other possible causes of poor growth as soon as breastfeeding falls off and maize porridge is introduced. They knew aflatoxin, the most notorious mycotoxin, had been observed to impair child growth in Benin and Togo. So they looked for other fungal toxins that could end up in maize-based complementary foods.
They observed that children of 12 months exposed to fumonisin above the World Health Organization maximum tolerable daily intake (2μg/kg body weight) through their corn flour-based complementary food were significantly shorter and lighter than their counterparts.
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. It can be prevented by correct storage of the maize.