YOU ARE WHAT YOU EAT

Are Mycotoxins The New Gluten?

Goodbye gluten, hello mycotoxin. The mold byproduct hiding in everything from dog food to coffee is poised to become the next health buzzword.

02.24.15 11:55 PM ET

Hot on the heels of a lawsuit alleging that thousands of dogs may have been poisoned by mycotoxins, a toxic mold byproduct found in grains, a new study places them in an even more sinister location: our breakfast cereal.

Published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry by Hyun Jung Lee and Dojin Ryu of the University of Idaho’s School of Food Science, the paper, “Significance of Ochratoxin A in Breakfast Cereals from the United States,” is the latest in a long series of studies.

Throughout a period of two years, Lee and Ryu tested 489 samples of grain-based cereals from seven different markets across the country, looking for the presence of Ochratoxin A (OCA), the most common of mycotoxins, and one that is “considered to be a potent renal carcinogen.” OCA has also demonstrated neurotoxic and immunosuppressant effects, and is suspected as a trigger for autism, especially in males.

Of the 489 samples, 205, or 42 percent, showed OCA contamination, though almost all of them were well below the European Commission Regulations of 3 nanograms per gram, or roughly 3 parts per billion. The paper gives a nod to the EC Regulation limits because our own U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not impose any limits on mycotoxin content in food products.

Only 16 samples, all oat-based, were above the ECR threshold. Their study found that oat-based cereals contained the highest OCA contamination, at 70 percent. It was followed by wheat-based, at 32 percent, and then corn and rice-based, both at 15 percent.

OCA is produced mainly by two different fungi, Aspergillus Ochraceus and Penicillium Verrucosum, and is one of the most widespread mycotoxin contaminants–aside from grains, it can also be found in coffee, grapes, wine, pork, and water damaged homes. OCA’s host molds need only a combination of high moisture and temperature to occur, and grains can become contaminated in both the field and in storage.

And it’s tenacious.

Like most mycotoxins, it remains stable at normal food processing temperatures of 176 – 248 degrees Fahrenheit, meaning that OCA doesn’t simply cook off like the mold it rode in on. Comparisons between this study and others like it also show little difference between conventional and organic samples; both appear to be equally as susceptible to contamination.

So wait, what does this mean exactly?

“[The] quick answer to that question is we don’t know yet,” admitted Ryu via email. “We tested all products/commodities that may be contaminated with the toxin including infant cereal, dried fruits, beer, wine, coffee, etc. It would take another year to assess the data and to say if there is any health risk for the public.”

It should be noted that mycotoxins and OCA aren’t a new thing—a quick Google search will reveal studies on the substances, and their suspected effects, going back decades. And while there is an awful lot of conflicting information floating around out there, the fact that they present, on some level, a human threat at least in high concentrations does appear real. This is why Ryu and Lee hope that the results of their research spur an intensification of surveillance, especially on oats and oat-based products, which are consumed daily on a large scale.

One takeaway would be that thus far 2015 has spawned several mycotoxin red flags, linking them to everything from sick pets to declining dairy milk yields to reduced efficiency in poultry egg quality. Food Safety Magazine declared them “a food safety crisis,” and the “cause of 30-60 percent of food and feed rejections at European Union borders.”

While you probably shouldn’t throw your toasted oat cereal in the hopper just yet, it’s definitely a developing story, with “mycotoxin” poised to become the next public health buzzword.