Understanding Mycotoxins: Hidden Dangers in Our Food

Mycotoxins are toxic compounds produced naturally by certain types of moulds or fungi. These moulds can grow on various food items, including cereals, dried fruits, nuts, and spices. They thrive in warm, damp, and humid conditions, both before and after harvest, making them a potential threat to food safety. Mycotoxins are chemically stable and can survive food processing, posing risks to human health and livestock.

There are numerous identified mycotoxins, but some of the most commonly observed and concerning ones include aflatoxins, ochratoxin A, patulin, fumonisins, zearalenone, and nivalenol/deoxynivalenol. These mycotoxins can contaminate crops during growth, storage, and processing. Exposure to mycotoxins can occur through direct consumption of contaminated food or indirectly through animals that consume contaminated feed, such as milk.

The effects of mycotoxins can range from acute symptoms of severe illness shortly after consumption to long-term health implications, including cancer and immune deficiency. Among the widely known mycotoxins, aflatoxins are particularly dangerous. They are produced by moulds like Aspergillus flavus and Aspergillus parasiticus, which can infect crops such as cereals, oilseeds, spices, and tree nuts. Aflatoxins can cause acute poisoning (aflatoxicosis), leading to liver damage and even posing a risk of liver cancer in humans.

Another significant mycotoxin is ochratoxin A, produced by Aspergillus and Penicillium species. It commonly contaminates food commodities like cereals, coffee beans, dried vine fruits, wine, spices, and liquorice. Ochratoxin A is associated with kidney damage and potential effects on fetal development and the immune system.

Patulin, produced by moulds like Aspergillus, Penicillium, and Byssochlamys, is often found in rotting apples and apple products. It can also contaminate various mouldy fruits, grains, and other foods. While its carcinogenic potential is still under investigation, acute symptoms in animals include damage to the liver, spleen, kidneys, and immune system, while humans may experience nausea and gastrointestinal disturbances.

Fusarium fungi, commonly found in soil, produce several mycotoxins, including trichothecenes (deoxynivalenol, nivalenol, T-2, and HT-2 toxins), zearalenone, and fumonisins. These toxins are associated with different cereal crops like wheat, oats, and maize. Trichothecenes can cause acute toxicity in humans, leading to skin irritation, intestinal issues, and diarrhea. Zearalenone has hormonal and estrogenic effects, potentially causing infertility at high levels of intake, particularly in pigs. Fumonisins are linked to esophageal cancer in humans and liver and kidney toxicity in animals.

Minimizing the Risk of Mycotoxins:

To reduce the health risks associated with mycotoxins, it’s important to take preventive measures:

  1. Inspect and discard: Regularly inspect whole grains, dried figs, and nuts for any signs of mould. Discard any mouldy, discolored, or shriveled food items.

  2. Protect grains: Prevent damage to grains during drying, storage, and transportation, as damaged grains are more susceptible to mould invasion and mycotoxin contamination.

  3. Buy fresh: Purchase grains and nuts as fresh as possible to minimize the chances of pre-existing contamination.

  4. Buy mould and mycotoxin-free coffee.