Low dietary cyanogen exposure from frequent consumption of potentially toxic cassava in Malawi

Int J Food Sci Nutr. 2000 Jan;51(1):33-43. doi: 10.1080/096374800100886.


In a cassava-growing area in Malawi, where roots are processed by soaking and water is available throughout the year, we interviewed 176 women farmers regarding their preferences for cassava cultivars and frequency of cassava consumption. Dietary cyanogen exposure was estimated from urinary levels of linamarin, the cyanogenic glycoside in cassava, and urinary thiocyanate, the main cyanide metabolite. Protection against unplanned harvest by family members, theft and animal spoilage were stated to be very important reasons for growing bitter cassava cultivars by 91%, 90% and 74% of the women, respectively. The mean (+/- SD) number of cultivars grown by each woman was 4.6 (+/- 2.4). The correlation between mean taste and mean danger scores for the 25 most grown cultivars was strong (r > 0.98). The scoring indicated that cultivars belonged to two distinct groups, eight to a group referred to as 'cool' and 17 to a group termed 'bitter'. The dumpling-like porridge (kondowole) made from cassava flour from bitter roots was eaten twice daily by 51% and at least weekly by 81%. The mean (+/- SEM) urinary linamarin was 14 (+/- 1) mumol/L and thiocyanate was 50 (+/- 4) mumol/L, less than a tenth of levels reported from populations eating insufficiently processed bitter cassava roots, and in the same range as in a non-smoking Swedish reference population. We conclude that cyanogenesis is a preferred characteristic of cassava by the studied farmers because it enhances food security. The availability of water and their knowledge about toxicity and processing enables these women farmers to provide a safe staple food from bitter cassava roots.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Agriculture / statistics & numerical data
  • Consumer Behavior
  • Cyanides / pharmacokinetics*
  • Cyanides / poisoning
  • Female
  • Food Handling / standards
  • Humans
  • Manihot / adverse effects
  • Manihot / chemistry*
  • Manihot / classification
  • Middle Aged
  • Thiocyanates / urine*
  • Water Supply / standards


  • Cyanides
  • Thiocyanates