Most people are familiar with mold, the green stuff that grows on old cheese. Of course, you recognize the black stuff in the shower or in the sink drain as mold. But, did you know many other foods contain mold?
And they can seriously harm your health.
The earliest recorded evidence of food mycotoxin (mold toxin) exposure occurred in the Middle Ages. Rye bread became contaminated with a fungus and the result was a widespread epidemic of ergotism (food poisoning caused by eating food contaminated with ergot). This mycotoxin grew readily on the heads of grasses like rye and wheat. The epidemic was referred to as St. Anthony’s Fire, as it caused burning sensations in the limbs of the victims.
Mold can grow on most all foods but fresh food with a high-water activity is the most vulnerable. Toxic mold occurs in worldwide food supplies due to mold contamination of susceptible agricultural products including cereals, grains, nuts, fruits, vegetables and coffee beans.
The risk is that mold can produce mycotoxins. Mycotoxins are toxic compounds that are created by specific types of molds. Mycotoxins are different than mold spores. They are considered chemical toxins capable of producing disease and death.
When these fungal metabolites are present in high enough levels in foods, then toxic effects can occur. Symptoms from these toxins can be acute or chronic. Acute symptoms of illness arise quickly after eating including vomiting, diarrhea and liver or kidney deterioration. Long-term symptomatic effects include cancer, immune deficiency or teratogenic effects.
Exposure can happen by eating infected food (direct route) or by eating animals that were fed contaminated feed (indirect route).
There are thousands of mycotoxins but only a handful that are associated with a food safety risk. Typically, these toxic metabolites are found in grains and nut products.
Food mycotoxins are chemically stable meaning they can survive food processing and are also difficult to detect.
Mold growth can occur at several different points of food production including but not limited to:
Essentially, mold growth occurs in the food chain as a result of crops being contaminated at some point either before or after harvest. Foods can become contaminated below the surface and form threads of mold deep within the product. Moldy foods are often also contaminated with bacteria simultaneously.
Grains are usually the most affected food product. Detection of fungal toxins is difficult. Unfortunately, one of the ways the industry is trying to now control for mycotoxins in grains is to create genetically modified grains that are resistant to insects and fungal infections.
Aflatoxin is a cancer-causing mold toxin found mainly in corn and grains. This toxin is also readily found in livestock corn feed. It is one of the most researched mycotoxins in the world and one of the most toxic. There was a major outbreak of aflatoxin from maize in Kenya in 2002. Hepatoxicity (liver damage) was the main culprit of deaths and there was also an increased incidence of cancers. Ochratoxin is another mycotoxin commonly present in grains including wheat, corn, barley, rye and oats and is considered a human carcinogen responsible for kidney and liver damage and intestinal necrosis. Not only are these grains easily contaminated with mycotoxins but so are products made from them including breads, cereals and pasta.
Peanuts are one of the most well-known sources of aflatoxin. Pistachios and other nuts like Brazil nuts can also become readily contaminated with this harmful mycotoxin. These products are grown in the hot and humid regions of the world and are therefore significantly susceptible to contamination by fungi.
Mold is present in many dried fruits such as figs, dates, raisins and prunes. If you notice an allergic reaction after eating a dried fruit, it could be due to mold infestation. This is why many preservatives like sulfites are added to dried fruits. Therefore, when purchasing your natural dried fruits ensure there is no mold contamination of the product you purchase. Dried fruits can become contaminated with aflatoxin, ochratoxin and patulin mycotoxins, all of which are detrimental to health. A study analyzed dried fruit samples and found that 83% of the dates and 80% of the raisins were contaminated with mycotoxins in Spain and Tunisia.
Aged meats like salami or sausage can become contaminated with mold that produces mycotoxins. Aflatoxins, ochratoxin and patulin are the main toxins found in these aged -meat products. These prominent mycotoxins can be found in dry-cured meats either due to mold growth directly on the products or contaminated feed that was fed to the animals. The presence of these mycotoxins in dry-cured meats has been established all around the world, yet currently there’s no legislative regulation for these mycotoxins in most countries.
Mycotoxins can occur in cheese either from mold growth on the product during storage or from animals that were fed feed contaminated with mold. Hazardous mycotoxins have been found in cheeses including aflatoxin and ochratoxin. There are also mold-ripened cheeses, which have the potential to have mycotoxins present in the final product. There is established evidence that these mycotoxins have been detected in cheeses at various concentrations revealing that mold toxins in cheese do present a health risk.
While spices are extremely healthy, they must be sourced properly from trusted suppliers. Spices are cultivated mainly in tropical regions and therefore can easily become contaminated with toxigenic fungi and their mycotoxins. Aflatoxin is the most common mycotoxin found in spices. Again, aflatoxin is carcinogenic, mutagenic and teratogenic to the body. It should be noted that organic spices are considered to be at a higher risk for mold contamination because synthetic fungicides cannot be used on them. Source your spices wisely.
The majority of the coffee products on the market are contaminated with harmful mycotoxins. There, we said it. The most common mycotoxins associated with coffee are aflatoxin and ochratoxin. There is substantial evidence that points to a large percentage of coffee beans containing measurable amounts of mycotoxins. Furthermore, these toxic compounds (due to their resistant properties) will make their way into your final drink. Overtime, levels of these mycotoxins can build up in your body. Choose whole bean coffee products and grind your coffee daily to minimize contamination. Also, choose quality, organic coffee with high quality control standards. Our favorite is Purity Coffee (use code WOLFSON) at checkout.
Alcohol producers often use grains that are contaminated with mycotoxins when making alcoholic beverages. In fact, a lot of the grains that were not fit for food production make their way to distilleries for alcohol production. There is a significant risk of mycotoxins being present in your alcohol. In fact, ochratoxin A along with other mycotoxins have been reported to be commonly found often in wine on six continents. Additionally, beer also contains measurable amounts of mycotoxins, because it is made from barley, a grain which is easily contaminated by fungi. A study in 2015 reported that “drinking a lot of beer increases exposure to mycotoxins”.
How do you know if your body contains mold? Get TESTED. We prefer the Vibrant Wellness Mold Mycotoxin test. There are 31 mycotoxins tested from one urine sample. Simple, easy and affordable. Go over the results with one of our health coaches. Order here.
Watch our mold discussion on Health Discoveries with Team TDW here.
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