Mycotoxins are harmful compounds found in agricultural products and can cause economic problems and health hazards to people and animals. These toxic compounds naturally occur in particular fungi, including Aspergillus and Penicillium. Mycotoxin-producing molds can grow on various crops such as nuts, spices, fruits, and cereals. Food products with these harmful compounds can cause mycotoxin contamination, ranging from acute poisoning to severe effects such as cancer and immune deficiency.
Mold growth can occur in different stages between crop cultivation and storage. It can develop before or after harvest or when you store food in moist and humid conditions. Most of these toxic compounds are also available in processed foods as they are chemically stable and survive food processing. Exposure to toxins can happen either directly or indirectly.
For example, mycotoxin contamination can occur when you eat infected food (direct contamination) or consume animal products such as milk from livestock fed contaminated feed (indirect contamination). Experts have identified hundreds of mycotoxins, though only some present a concern to human and livestock health. They include aflatoxins, patulin, ochratoxin A, fumonisins, zearalenone, and nivalenol.
Why are these mycotoxins of concern?
These compounds are a problem to human health and may result in severe illness symptoms shortly after consuming contaminated foods. The effects of mycotoxin contamination depend on the type of toxin present in food. For example, other toxins are associated with long-term health issues such as immune deficiency and cancer. Out of the hundreds of mycotoxins identified by specialists, about twelve of them have gained the most attention due to their adverse effects on human health. They include:
Ochratoxin A is a common food-contaminating mycotoxin that mainly develops during the storage of crops. Several species of Aspergillus and Penicillium produce it and contaminate various food commodities, including grape juice, cereal products, coffee beans, and spices. Experts have noted that this toxin damages the kidney in animals and affects the immune system and fetal development. While it is clear that ochratoxin A exposure in animals causes kidney toxicity and cancer, its association in humans is yet to be established. Still, it has been seen to affect the kidney.
These are among the most poisonous toxins and a significant threat to food safety globally. Aflatoxins contaminate up to 25% of the world’s agricultural products. These toxins are prevalent, but unfortunately, experts consider them unavoidable food contaminants. The molds responsible for aflatoxins (Aspergillus flavus and Aspergillus parasiticus) are usually present in the soil, hay, decaying vegetation, and grains.
While these toxins can occur in any crop, they mostly attack cereals, spices, tree nuts, and oilseeds. Animals like cows being fed contaminated feed also produce milk with aflatoxin. Consuming these toxins in large amounts can result in acute poisoning, life-threatening. There is also evidence that aflatoxins can cause liver cancer in humans, damage genetic mutation and cause cancer in animals.
Ways to prevent mycotoxin contamination
It is essential to understand that mold-producing mycotoxins can grow on different crops and foodstuffs. They don’t just occur on the surface but can penetrate the food. Most of the time, mold occurs on dump grains stored inappropriately. For this reason, it is necessary to properly dry foods before storing them to prevent the growth of molds and mycotoxins production. The following strategies can help reduce the risks of mycotoxin contamination.
It would be best to implement these strategies before mycotoxin contamination and fungal infestation. It is the most significant step in the prevention of mycotoxin production. Experts recommend various practices to create unfavorable conditions for fungal growth. These include:
- Minimize damaging grains during harvesting because damaged grains are more prone to mold invasion and mycotoxin contamination.
- Dry your grain and other foods before storing them to avoid creating a suitable environment for mold growth. Store food away from insects and don’t store it in very warm areas. Additionally, do not keep foods for extended periods before consumption.
- Inspect whole grains such as wheat, rice, sorghum, and dried nuts such as almond, coconut, and pistachio for any abnormal signs. Look for mold evidence and discard any that is discolored, moldy, or shriveled.
- Buy fresh grains and nuts and not those that have stayed for an extended period on the store shelves.
Every crop grower should practice these measures to reduce mycotoxin exposure. Mycotoxins pose serious health issues to humans, and they also impact food security in the world.