By: Firas Taweel
Exclusive to Environment and Development Horizons (Afaq magazine):
Palestinian kitchen is full of spices of all kinds, especially since our food is incomplete without them.
However, these spices, with the flavor and taste they add to our meals, and despite their pleasant smells, hide dangerous secrets that only testing in laboratories will reveal.
Results of a recent scientific study conducted on spices in the Palestinian market revealed contamination with dangerous toxic fungi that causes cancer.
The research is a master's thesis in environmental biology at the Faculty of Science at Birzeit University, and it was published last month in an American scientific journal that specializes in publishing food surveys.
The study was completed by student Sandi Barakat (currently residing in the United States), under the supervision of Dr. Khaled Sweileh, Professor of Biology and Environment in the Department of Biology.
The study was titled "Fungal Contamination, Aflatoxin Fungi and Aflatoxin B1 Levels in Spices in the Market in the West Bank".
It aimed at testing the levels of mycotoxins in seven types of ground spices in the markets of Ramallah and Al-Bireh Governorate, which are "red pepper, black pepper, chicken spice, mixed spices, ground cardamom, ground ginger, and sumac." (13-14) samples of each category were tested, with a total of 97 samples for all types. Tested were performed at the laboratories of Birzeit University.
The examinations focused on three aspects, the first: the detection of any fungal contamination in the sample.
The second: the detection of fungal contamination of the type Aspergillus, as one of the dangerous types of aflatoxin.
And the third aspect: detecting the amount of aflatoxin in each sample.
The results showed that all samples were contaminated with different fungi (harmful and helpful) at a rate of more than 85 thousand fungal colony-forming units/gm, knowing that the minimum allowed globally is 10,000 units per gram.
25% of the samples were contaminated with levels that exceed the allowable limits, according to the International Organization for Microbiological Standards for Food (ICMSF).
According to the results of the study (a copy that was obtained by Afaq Environmental Magazine reporter), 89% of the samples were contaminated with the dangerous Aspergillus fungus, the highest in ginger and mixed spice samples, and the lowest in black pepper and sumac.
It is reported that 82% of the discovered Aspergillus fungi are toxin-producing species.
The research stated that 40% of the samples contained dangerous mycotoxins (aflatoxin B1), the highest in red pepper, chicken spices and ground cardamom.
Some of those samples contained dangerous mycotoxins, 23% had levels of aflatoxin above the allowable limits, according to the EU standard of 5 micrograms per kilogram.
Quality Control is needed
Fungi is spread everywhere, it grows in humid places and warm temperatures, and agricultural crops can become infected with fungi during cultivation, transportation and storage, according to Dr. Khaled Sweileh, Professor of Biology and Environment at Birzeit University.
Sweileh points out that fungi abound in food products from South Asia and Southeast Asia, based on international studies.
Some types of fungi secrete severe toxins called "aflatoxins", which are among the most toxic types, and are considered the most powerful natural carcinogens.
Since the mentioned toxins appeared in the samples examined in the framework of the study, Sweileh demanded for the spices in the Palestinian markets to be subject to control by the authorities, by examining the spices that constantly enter the market, and performing periodic tests on random samples from the stores or shops because “the chances of contamination of the spices with toxic fungi are high.”
Sweileh added: "Some international studies showed that 25% of liver cancer cases in the world are caused by exposure to aflatoxins."
World Health Organization on its website stated that some mycotoxins in food (aflatoxins among them) are linked to long-term health effects, including cancer.
Translated by: Rasha Abu Dayyeh