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How ‘elubo’ sellers mix alum with yam flour

By Maria Famakinwa

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Mrs. Risi Elugbe, (Not her real name) bought elubo (yam flour) from her customer and made amala for her family only to be told by her husband that the amala she made tasted more like alum and the odour was very offensive. She perceived the odour herself and confirmed the smell of alum. She said: “I thanked God that none of my children ate from it because they didn’t like amala. I immediately threw the amala away and told my husband to take antibiotics. The next day, I went to where I bought the yam flour and complained to the woman who didn’t deny that alum was added to it but explained that it must have been from where she bought it.

“The woman who sold the yam flour for me further revealed that she used to buy powered yam flour packed in bags from different villages in the southwest and they are the ones adding alum to yam flour before grinding. I asked her the reason for adding alum to the flour, she said  it was for preservation and also to make yam flour rise when prepared. Since then, I made up my mind never to buy powered yam again. I prefer to buy the ones that are not grinded and grind it myself instead of risking my life and that of my family,” she vowed.

Amala, is a staple food in Nigeria, particularly in the south western region of the country. It is a Nigerian dish made from yam, cassava, or plantain flour. It is often served at social events and celebrations such as weddings, birthdays, and other important occasions. Traditionally, Amala is eaten with a variety of soups or stews such as ewédú and gbegìrì (black-eyed beans soup), okra soup, ogbono or vegetable soup.

Health benefits include promoting healthy skin, rich in fibre, being a good source of minerals, aiding weight loss, helps to manage diabetes among others. However many like Mrs. Elugbe, who could not do without this special delicacy need to be careful of where they buy and the type of yam flour they buy because some sellers of this cherished food have devised a way of jeopardizing consumers’ health for their selfish interests.

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To get more facts, The Hope spoke with some women selling yam flour at a popular market in Akure. One of them who simply gave her name as Fayokemi affirmed that some yam flour sellers truly added alum to it but not all the sellers. She said: “The practice of mixing alum with yam flour has been on for a very long time which is common among those selling already ground yam flour (powdered yam flour) packed in bags. Most of these sellers bring them from neighbouring states to Ondo State for sale. They are the ones who grind and packed them in bags before bringing them to the market to sell to unsuspecting consumers in different measurements.

On why they are adding alum to yam flour before grinding, she explained that they believed it would help to produce the desired results when preparing it to make amala. “The reasons they are adding alum to elubo before grinding is to preserve it and make it rise while processing it into amala. You are only complaining about yam flour sellers adding alum to it, are you aware that they also use alum to cook ponmo (cow skin)? That is what ponmo sellers are using to cook ponmo at the abattoir which is the reason one feels alum taste when eating ponmo but most consumers are not taking cognizance of it,” she revealed.

Another yam flour seller, Mrs Ajibike, also disclosed that some sellers add alum to yam flour before grinding to make it rise during the process of making amala which will help to convince consumers that the elubo they bought was good because people will always patronize where they can get value for their money undermining the aftermath results. She also warned consumers to be careful of where they buy foodstuffs.

Her words: “Some yam flour sellers truly add alum to it before grinding but not all of us. Like me, I eat from the “elubo” I sell to customers so it is not possible to add alum to it. This practice is most common among sellers of powdered yam flour. My only advice is that consumers should be sure of where they want to buy elubo and if they are not sure, they should avoid buying grinded yam flour. They should buy the ones that are not yet grinded and grind it themselves  instead of endangering their health.”

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This writer approached another woman selling powdered yam flour packed in a sack at the same market, she took a little of it and perceived the odour, the seller angrily asked her why was she smelling the yam flour, she told her that she wanted to be sure it was not the one added with alum. She responded with anger and said: “I don’t like the act of a customer smelling my market because it is food. Besides, I didn’t grind my elubo with alum and you are the first person saying this. Those who patronize us know that our yam flour is good and different from others.”

This writer told her that she only wanted to be sure that the elubo was not smelling alum, she cuts in: “My elubo is good and I didn’t add alum to it. Besides, what is wrong with alum that you are stressing? After all, people use alum for herbs, to wash snails, for water purification, and other uses. Buy what you want to buy and if you are not ready leave my shop.”

Mrs Faith Onileke, of the Department of Dietetics, Federal Medical Centre (FMC) Owo, in her contribution, observed that alum is commonly used in food preservation and processing in Nigeria but warned that excessive consumption of alum could have serious health implications. She said: “High alum intake is dangerous to health because it can reduce nutrient absorption, cause gastrointestinal irritation, and also increase kidney workload. It is essential to note that the effects may vary depending on the quantity and frequency of alum consumption. To minimize risks, use alum in moderation and explore alternative preservation methods.”

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The Hope spoke with a Prof of Biochemistry & Director, Quality Assurance Management Unit, the Federal University of Technology Akure (FUTA), Prof Ola Salawu, condemned the act of grinding alum with yam flour and using it to cook cow skin (ponmo). He disclosed that consuming yam flour grinded with alum poses significant health hazards, as alum (aluminum sulfate) is not intended for food use and can have toxic effects on the human body.

His words: “Regular intake of alum through food can lead to aluminum toxicity, which may result in gastrointestinal issues such as stomach pain, nausea, and vomiting. Long-term exposure to high levels of aluminum is also linked to more severe health problems, including neurotoxicity, which can contribute to cognitive impairments and conditions like Alzheimer’s disease. Moreover, aluminum can accumulate in bones, potentially leading to bone pain and diseases such as osteomalacia.

“Similarly, the practice of using alum to boil cow skin, commonly known as ponmo, is widespread among sellers but poses serious health risks to consumers. When alum is used in the preparation of ponmo, residual aluminum can remain in the cow skin, which then gets ingested. The ingestion of aluminum from such sources can cause similar health problems as those described above, including gastrointestinal disturbances and potential long-term neurotoxicity. Additionally, continuous consumption of aluminum-laden ponmo can contribute to the overall burden of aluminum, increasing the risk of chronic health issues.

“To mitigate this health risks, it is crucial to enforce stricter food safety regulations and raise public awareness about the dangers of using alum in food processing. Alternatives to alum should be promoted among food sellers, and regular monitoring and testing of food products should be conducted to ensure they meet safety standards. Public health campaigns can play a significant role in educating both sellers and consumers about the health implications of this practice, ultimately fostering safer food handling and consumption habits,” he advised.

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How ‘elubo’ sellers mix alum with yam flour

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