Food toxicology and its impact on food

The food toxicology evaluates the presence of toxic and antinutritional factors present in food with the purpose of making it safe or of low health risk according to dietary intake.

This knowledge allows us to assess the effects that certain substances have on biochemical processes and physiological and/or anatomical changes in ensure product safety and avoid food disasters and human losses.

A toxicant in food is a combination of chemical properties that has the ability to cause poisoning, that is, harmful changes it creates in contact with a living being.

Classification of poisons

Food toxicology is important, because harmful substances can be found in food, even unprocessed. And if they are consumed in sufficient quantities with these substances, they can have a negative effect on the consumer and endanger his health.

It is possible to distinguish four types of toxins:

Naturally. This group of chemical substances can occasionally cause poisoning, since they can be found in higher than normal concentrations in some foods. These toxins can be found in legumes, grains, alcoholic or caffeinated beverages, in some proteins and amino acids, or in dairy products such as cheese.

Deliberate. These are substances that are foreign to food and that are added specifically. Some examples of this type of toxic substances are found in preservatives and dyes, in flavors, nitrates and emulsifiers, in some proteins or thinners.

By accident. This group of funds is usually the most dangerous for health. In them, it is not possible to know the amount that is present in the food or how it got there. Sometimes it is an unknown poison, so diagnosing poisoning can be complicated.
Some examples can be found in pesticides from legumes and grains, in stimulant drinks (in the metals they contain), in some proteins or in antivitamins.

Generated by the process. When there is a food transformation process, these toxins can be generated.

In the context of food toxicology, chronic poisoning is a direct consequence of exposure to a toxicant. Photo: Freepik

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Food toxicology

According to a study by the Technical University of Machala in Ecuador, toxic substances can be found in the following foods:

Ciguatera poisoning is caused by the consumption of fish from tropical and subtropical waters, with the presence of toxins from many species of dinoflagellates through the food chain.

1. Ciguatoxin

The largest fish are the most poisonous because they devour smaller fish that have consumed algae and dinoflagellates. The species responsible for ciguatoxin is the dinoflagellate Gambierdiscus toxicus.

2. Scombrotoxin

It is a toxin present in Scombridae species such as sardines (Sardina pilchardus), tuna (Thunnus albacares) and anchovies (Engraulis encrasicolus).

Scombrotoxin poisoning occurs due to the level of histamine in fish, which is produced by bacterial decarboxylation of histidine and other amino acids.

The increase in histamine comes from bacterial breakdown in the guts and muscles of the fish after it dies. Its decay is fast, either because of the muscles’ own enzymes or because of those microorganisms that add it.

It also occurs because there is no good storage of fish and it is prone to decomposition. Symptoms such as nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, fainting, headache, hives appear.

3. Toxic glycosides

Glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase (G6PD) is an enzyme found in red blood cells and its deficiency can cause hemolytic anemia with excess intake of certain foods such as broad beans (Vicia faba).

In its composition, the bean has two components: convicin and vicin in the form of glycosides, which are hydrolyzed by β-glycosidases into isouramyl and divicin. They act as oxidants against glutathione and as a result hemolytic anemia occurs.

A toxicant in food is a compound with chemical properties that has the ability to cause poisoning. Photo: Freepik

4. Nickel

Nickel is the most toxic element, it is found in the environment thanks to various natural sources and other industrial sources such as burning oil, coal or burning waste.

All that nickel one way or another ends up in the soil, where it is absorbed and adheres to vegetation, fruits or vegetables, which is why you need to know what kind of soil it is grown on.

5. Aflatoxins

They belong to the mycotoxin family, they are secondary metabolites produced by strains of Aspergillus flavus, which can be present in cereals (maize, wheat, rice, oats, barley, among others) and legumes. When the agent contaminates the corn grain, it becomes a toxic product that affects human health. The types of aflatoxin are: B1, B2, G1 and G2, with B1 being the most important.

6. Salmonella enterica

Egg is a food of natural origin with great nutritional value that provides our body with large amounts of protein. However, it can be affected by the presence of microorganisms, including salmonella.

This bacterium, which belongs to the Enterobacteriaceae family, is highly pathogenic, both for humans and animals. Salmonellosis is transmitted by consuming food of poultry origin, during egg laying, when the eggs come out of the cloaca.

They are often contaminated in a short time, since the outer part is exposed to many microorganisms, salmonella, which easily penetrates the eggs, changing their composition.

In conclusion, we have to cooperate with institutions like World Health Organization campaigns to consolidate knowledge about certain substances present in food with the aim of protecting the general population.

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