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Mycotoxins and Human Disease- A Largely Ignored Global Health Issue

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Mycotoxins and Human Disease- A Largely Ignored Global Health Issue

Christopher Wild and Yun Yun Gong Carcinogenesis 2010;31:71-82.

Molds (fungi) produce a wide variety of toxins called mycotoxins. Mycotoxin contamination is especially common on staple foods such as peanuts, soybeans, and grains (especially corn). Mycotoxin contamination can also occur on fruits, vegetables, nuts, meat and dairy products.


While mycotoxin contamination of foodstuffs is most common in warm and wet climates and in low-income countries, mycotoxin contamination of foods and animal feeds is still fairly common in temperate climates and in developed nations. Some researchers suggest that climate change may also increase risk of mycotoxin contamination of foods.

The most studied mycotoxin found in food are aflatoxins. Aflatoxins are produced by some Aspergillus species like A. parasiticus and A. flavus. Aflatoxins are potent carcinogens that have been linked to higher rates of liver and lung cancer in humans. Other studies have reported that aflatoxin in foods causes roughly 5 to 20% of the 600,000 annual human deaths to liver cancer.

Fumonisins are a family of mycotoxins produced by Fusarium molds and primarily contaminate corn (maize) and other grains. Various human and animal studies have reported that fumonisins are toxic to the liver and kidneys, can increase risk of neural tube defects (such as spina bifida) in newborns, and can increase risk of early (precocious) puberty in young girls.

Other mycotoxins commonly found in foodstuffs include ochratoxins (toxic to the kidney and carcinogenic) and trichothecene mycotoxins (which damage the immune and nervous systems).

Research is underway to reduce mycotoxin exposure in foods. Since mycotoxin contamination is so common on legumes like peanuts and soybeans and on corn and other grains, proper crop harvesting and moisture control during storage is critical to reduce mycotoxins on these foods. Reducing consumption of peanuts and grains and eating more fresh fruits, vegetables and meats can also reduce mycotoxin consumption. Food with visible mold growth should be thrown out. Refrigerating foods like fruits, vegetables and dairy products can also reduce mold and mycotoxin growth. A well balanced diet with sufficient amounts of protein, vitamins and fiber can also reduce the adverse health effects of small amounts of mycotoxins in foodstuffs.


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