Peanut problems, in a nutshell

Consumer Reports News: February 18, 2009 12:02 PM

For the last few weeks we’ve kept you posted on the ongoing peanut-butter recalls. Earlier last week the FBI raided the Peanut Butter Corp. of America, the Georgia company implicated in the outbreak of Salmonella that is now linked to 637 illnesses and 9 deaths in 44 states and that has led to the recall of more than 2,200 products. Some experts now think that the bacteria may have been spread by the birds that often roost on peanut-butter processing plants. Water contaminated with salmonella-infested feces may have leaked through the roof and into the peanut butter, where the bacteria could thrive and multiply.

While this is the most serious problem ever linked to peanuts or peanut butter, it’s not the first. Here are a few other potential risks posed by peanuts—along with some of the legume's benefits.

Allergies: More people each year die from allergic reactions to peanuts than from any other food. While some evidence suggests that children afflicted with this type of allergy may outgrow it, the vast majority do not. Those who've had a minor reaction in the past are at risk for a more serious one in the future.

Choking: Peanuts are a leading cause of childhood choking accidents, in part because they can also inflame the airway, making the blockage worse. Indeed, some doctors say peanuts are more likely than any other object to choke young children (though small metal or plastic objects can also obstruct the windpipe and bronchial tubes, as this mother of a Lego-inspired child can attest.) To avoid choking, don't give peanuts—or any small, hard food—to small children until they get their back teeth in.

Aflatoxins: These naturally occurring poisons are produced by the mold aspergillus flavus, which grow on peanuts and grains and may contribute to the onset to hepatitis, liver cirrhosis, and liver cancer. Consumers Union looked for aflatoxins in peanut butter starting in 1972. In our 1990 tests, for example, the average level of aflatoxin in our 86 samples was 5.7 parts per billion. That’s an amount below the safe upper limit of 20 ppb but still a little high for comfort. Since then, however, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has gotten stricter and the levels of aflatoxin in peanut butter have declined from an average of 2.7 ppb in 1997 to 1.6 ppb in 2001.

Despite the hazards, peanuts are good sources of protein, vitamin E, niacin, and fiber. Though they have lots of fat, most of it is the unsaturated kind, which doesn’t raise LDL (bad) cholesterol. And, of course, they taste great.

Orly Avitzur, M.D., Consumer Reports medical adviser

Read more on the Salmonella investigation and peanut recalls on our Safety blog.

Photo by chefranden

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