What can go wrong with peanut butter? First, peanut oil can become rancid quickly after the jar is opened. This gives the product a bad taste. Slight rancidity can make the gooey stuff taste like cardboard while a terribly rancid brand has a fishy or painty taste.
Rancidity is usually caused by storage problems. Under normal conditions, peanut butter has a long shelf life provided it is kept in a cool, dry place. But if the peanuts used in filling a jar are bad to start with, especially when exposed to air, heat or light, you can expect a lousy product.
Still, eating rotten peanuts every now and then is no cause for alarm. Not all peanuts that look bad are actually bad. Those withered, bitter-tasting nuts you chance upon are not always hallmarks of rancidity. This usually occurs when peanuts are harvested before their time.
One troubling aspect of peanut butter, however, is the aflatoxin scare that first affected the United States and spread to some Asian countries. Several local brands of peanut butter were confiscated by the health authorities after they were found to have high levels of aflatoxin which has been linked to cancer, changes in gene structure and birth defects among others.
Almost overnight, peanut butter's tasty image was tarnished. This highly nutritious and cheap source of cholesterol-free protein suddenly joined the ranks of other cancer-causing substances. And although new stocks of peanut butter were eventually cleared by health authorities, the specter of aflatoxin remains in our mid. Can we still trust peanut butter?
First of all, condemning peanut butter just because it has aflatoxin is not right. After all, this powerful poison naturally occurs in corn, rice and other foods. While most peanut butter including those cleared by food authorities contain aflatoxin, they are harmless because this poison is present only in small amounts. Here, aflatoxin has long been a part of our daily fare.
How much aflatoxin can we take? The permitted levels vary from country to country and are regulated by government agencies. In the United States, the Department of Agriculture limits levels in peanut products to 15 parts per billion (ppb). Actual levels, however, are much lower.
A study made by Consumer Reports showed that the average level of aflatoxin in several products was only 0.85 ppb. In some Asian countries, the level set by health authorities is 20 ppb. Confiscated products had higher aflatoxin levels and some even reached 100 ppb. Does this mean that those who purchased these products are in danger of dying from liver cancer later?
Not really. For one, the link between aflatoxin and liver cancer has not been fully established yet. Initial studies made in the 1960s appear to support this connection but the chances of contracting liver cancer from peanut butter remain very slim.
"According to the nation's scientists, the risk is insignificant. Although lab rats fed small doses of aflatoxin grievous liver tumors, mice given small or even large doses did not do. Much the same way that mouse livers do. If mice can eat aflatoxin without growing tumors it's reassuring news for us, "revealed Mary Roach in Hippocrates magazine.
With that in mind, you can safely eat peanut butter and enjoy the magic it brings. Indeed, in taste and nutrition, nothing compares to this gooey and sticky delight.
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