Kenkey is a favorite food of many Ghanaians and eaten at any time of the day. It is the staple food of the Ga ethnic group found in the southern part of the country. Couple of years ago, social media went haywire after scientific research findings on why kenkey could cause cancer was published in the media. In this article, we will attempt to answer the questions of how and why this is possible.
First, a recap of the publication
According to the Ghana Standards Authority, the threshold, which means the contamination level of grains is set at a particular level, beyond which, the crop is declared unsafe or too contaminated for consumption. For maize; which is the main ingredient for making kenkey, the threshold is 15ppb. Where PPB refers to parts per billion and is the unit measurement for the concentration of a contaminant in crops and soils.
On the authority of empirical studies conducted, aflatoxin, which is the contaminant in grain foods such as maize, was detected in market samples of maize in Accra, with levels reaching 4,800 ppb. Aflatoxin in fermented maize dough was also found to be up to 289ppb and 51ppb in fermented kenkey.
This clearly shows that the aflatoxins levels detected during studies conducted exceeded the threshold of contaminants for maize; the main ingredient for making kenkey.
Aflatoxins and food safety
Food safety is compromised when food is contaminated. Food contamination occurs when food is poorly handled and stored in unfavourable conditions causing unwanted foreign materials to come into contact with the food. Or when food is stored longer than its required storage time. The aim of food safety is to prevent food from becoming contaminated and causing food poisoning to humans and livestock.
When food is contaminated with high levels of toxic contents or chemicals such as aflatoxins, the safety of the food becomes compromised.
Impact of Aflatoxin on Health
As already established, aflatoxin levels exceeding the required threshold for maize; the main ingredient for kenkey is very harmful; poisonous even to humans. Its consumption in large quantities can have diverse health implications such as; lipid metabolism (cholesterol), glucose metabolism (hyperglycaemia), decreased growth rate or kwashiorkor, female reproductive problems, male sterility problems, liver malfunction, kidney malfunction and liver cancers
These health implications have been identified to appear in two forms of aflatoxin disease called Aflatoxicosis. The two general forms of the disease are;
- Acute primary Aflatoxicosis: it is the result of consuming moderate to high levels of aflatoxins. Acute aflatoxicosis includes kidney and liver disease.
- Chronic primary Aflatoxicosis: this results from ingestion of low to moderate levels of aflatoxins and its effects are difficult to recognize. In this case, it can cause genetic mutations and DNA damage.
It is estimated that more than 5 billion people in developing countries are at risk of chronic aflatoxin exposure due to the consumption of aflatoxin-contaminated foods. This can also be blamed on poor regulatory authorities in food processing and storage. Of these 5 billion people, 4 billion are known to develop aflatoxin-related liver cancer.
At the mention of liver cancer, I hope you can see that we are drawing closer to realizing the correlation between kenkey and cancer.
‘Kenkey Causes Cancer’
Aflatoxins have been identified to be heat stable and cannot be completely destroyed by cooking. Although the mould itself can be destroyed, once the food has already been infected with aflatoxin, it remains unsafe.
You’re prone to either acute aflatoxicosis or chronic aflatoxicosis if you consume unsafe kenkey.
So can kenkey really cause cancer? Yes, it can. Corn that has been left to grow mouldy, will contain a high concentration of aflatoxins. Regularly consuming kenkey made with corn or dough that has a high concentration of aflatoxins could cause cancer. This is why at Sesi Technologies, we are developing technologies to help farmers product better quality grains that have low levels of aflatoxins.