Peanuts growing all around, Abubakari focuses on processing for a healthy food supply
By Alex C. Merritt
University of Georgia, Peanut & Mycotoxin Innovation Lab
When you grow up in a peanut-producing region, it’s easy to be grounded in groundnuts.
PMIL master’s student Yussif Abubakari was born in Tamale, Ghana, in the Northern region of the country. According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, Ghana is the world’s 15th largest producer of peanuts, and smallholder farmers in this area produce most of the country’s 490,000-ton annual peanut output.
Abubakari became interested in the production of peanut paste, a ground peanut product that is similar to peanut butter. Peanut paste is valued in Ghana for its flavor and high nutrient content.
“Northern Ghana is a leading producer of peanut products such as peanut paste, but almost all of the peanut paste produced is for domestic use,” said Abubakari. “This may be due to the high risk of microbial contamination through the variable methods of production that lack standard quality supervision. These contaminations can pose serious health problems to consumers.”
Aflatoxin, a byproduct of naturally occurring molds that grow on staple crops like peanuts and corn, is one of these contaminants. Aflatoxin can build up in crops that are exposed to the fungus and then dried or stored improperly. Long-term consumption of aflatoxin-contaminated food has been linked to liver cancer, childhood stunting, and immune system deficiencies.
“I took interest in research to mitigate aflatoxin in peanuts along the production chain in Ghana,” Abubakari said. “My degree will enable me to conduct research into the quality of the food we consume and the effects it has on our health and the economy.”
With support from PMIL, Abubakari recently earned a master’s degree in Food Science and Technology from the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in Kumasi. His research focused on the quality of peanut paste in the three parts of northern Ghana.
“My goal was to determine the nutrient content of peanut paste sold in northern sector markets, as well as assess the microbial load and aflatoxin levels of the peanut paste sold,” he said.
He began by collecting peanut paste samples from six major markets in Northern Ghana. Tests showed the peanut pastes all were high in protein and carbohydrate content, but the samples contained a wide range of aflatoxin. Only two of the six markets, Tamale central and Bolga central, offered paste that on average passed the 20 ppb limit imposed in the U.S. The peanut paste samples from Wa central market had the highest concentration of aflatoxin at 126 ppb, over six times the recommended limit. Coliform counts for all samples were below the acceptable limits, and fungal contamination was below acceptable limits in all samples except those from the Navrongo central market.
Abubakari then created a survey to better understand the processing methods behind the peanut paste manufacturing. He found that 75 percent of producers used untreated stream water during processing, and there was no sorting, blanching, or grading during the process, techniques shown to reduce the likelihood of aflatoxin contamination.
When the survey results are compared to the data from the market samples, it became clear that poor processing practices led to increased aflatoxin contamination.
“The relationship between the survey results and the level of aflatoxin contamination in the various samples was really amazing. The practices of the producers spelled out clearly the reasons for the high level contaminations in the samples,” he said.
Abubakari believes not enough attention is paid to the role that processing has on contamination.
“Although there have been interventions in the field to mitigate levels of aflatoxin in peanuts, paste processing practices have been left out of the question,” he said. “My research will help in food quality and safety decision-making. Further research should be conducted on the different paste-processing methods used in the various research locations.”
At the moment, Abubakari is working as a research assistant for the CSIR-SARI food science section. Between collecting and analyzing data and running the station’s soymilk factory (a project of the Feed the Future Soybean Innovation Lab), his love for research is pushing him to look for scholarships to pursue a PhD.
“I have a passion for food science,” he said. His main interest now lies in the intersection of food microbiology and food safety.
“Food microbiology and food safety reveal how, when, and what are threats to food contamination, and the effects this contamination has on our lives. I plan to continue research on peanuts as part of my PhD,” he added.
-Published May 31, 2017