Aspergillus flavus may colonize hazelnuts and produce aflatoxins in the field and during storage. The main purpose of this study was to investigate the influence of drying temperature and exposure times on the viability of A. flavus and its ability to produce aflatoxins during the drying process and storage. Hazelnuts were inoculated with A. flavus and dried at different temperatures to reach 6% moisture content and a water activity (aw) of 0.71, a commercial requirement to avoid fungal development and aflatoxin contamination. Hazelnuts were dried at 30, 35, 40, 45, and 50°C and subsequently stored at 25°C for 14 days. After drying at 30, 35, and 40°C, increased amounts of A. flavus were evident, with the highest concentration occurring after drying at 35°C ([6.1 ± 2.4] × 106A. flavus CFU/g). At these temperatures, aflatoxins were detected only at 30 and 35°C. Aflatoxins, however, were present at higher levels after drying at 30°C, with concentrations of 1.93 ± 0.77 μg/g for aflatoxin B1 (AFB1) and 0.11 ± 0.04 μg/g for aflatoxin B2 (AFB2). After 14 days of storage, the highest A. flavus concentration and the highest levels of mycotoxins were detected in samples treated at 35°C ([8.2 ± 2.1] × 107A. flavus CFU/g and 9.30 ± 1.58 μg/g and 0.89 ± 0.08 μg/g for AFB1 and AFB2, respectively). In hazelnuts dried at 45 or 50°C, no aflatoxins were found either after drying or storage, and a reduction of A. flavus viable conidia was observed, suggesting that a shorter and warmer drying is essential to guarantee nut safety. The lowest temperature that guarantees the lack of aflatoxins should be selected to maintain the organoleptic quality of hazelnuts. Therefore, 45°C should be the recommended drying temperature to limit A. flavus growth and aflatoxin contamination on hazelnuts.
Hazelnuts were artificially inoculated with an aflatoxigenic A. flavus strain.
Hazelnuts were dried at different temperatures to reach 6% moisture content.
Shorter drying time is the key point to guarantee nut safety.
Drying between 30 and 40°C led to A. flavus growth and aflatoxin production.
The recommended drying temperature on hazelnuts should be 45°C.