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The Problem with Mycotoxins in Coffee & Other Foods

A lot of foods like coffee have mold or mycotoxin contamination. The nature of the trap is that you drink a cup of coffee you, get a high, then you crash and have to repeat the cycle. It’s the toxins. That’s why you get tired two hours after you drink your coffee. Maybe you get a little cranky or jittery or you get a little buzz and then you need to have another cup - That's because the cycle when you drink toxic coffee is: You drink it, you buzz, you crash, then repeat until you go to sleep. When you drink coffee without the toxins, you buzz, you feel really good and then you land (don't crash!) You come back to feeling normal hours later. Your quantified measures of executive function go up. - Dave Asprey (@BulletproofExec)

What Exactly Are Mycotoxins and Why Should I Care?

Mycotoxins are made by fungi and are toxic to vertebrates and other animal groups in low concentrations. Some 300 to 400 compounds are now recognized as mycotoxins, of which approximately a dozen groups regularly receive attention as threats to human and animal health (49). http://safefoodelicious.blogspot.com.au/2010/07/toxin_13.html

Some mycotoxins have found use as antibiotics while others have potential for use chemical weapons. The term mycotoxin was coined in 1962 in the aftermath of an unusual veterinary crisis near London, England, during which approximately 100,000 turkey poults died (22, 82). When this mysterious turkey X disease was linked to a peanut (groundnut) meal contaminated with secondary metabolites fromAspergillus flavus (aflatoxins), it sensitized scientists to the possibility that other occult mold metabolites might be deadly. Soon, the mycotoxin rubric was extended to include a number of previously known fungal toxins (e.g., the ergot alkaloids), some compounds that had originally been isolated as antibiotics (e.g., patulin), and a number of new secondary metabolites revealed in screens targeted at mycotoxin discovery (e.g., ochratoxin A).

Surveys of the green coffee production chain indicate that Aspergillus ochraceus and A. carbonarius are the most potent OTA producers on coffee. Both have been successfully grown in vitro on green coffee and coffee cherries, respectively, producing high amounts of OTA (5-13 mg kg(-1)). 

How Mycotoxins Contaminate Your Coffee:

Mycotoxin contamination of coffee beans varies due to different environmental conditions and cultural differences in harvesting (unsound beans account for 95% of mycotoxin contamination - http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20175009)

The major risk factors and processing steps that can lead to contamination of green coffee with ochratoxin A (OTA) have been identified.

  • The so-called dry processing of coffee, which is cherry drying, was identified as one of the steps during which OTA formation can take place, particularly under humid tropical conditions.
  • Cherries contain sufficient amounts of water to support mould growth and OTA formation during the initial 3-5 days of drying on the outer part of the cherries.
  • Not surprisingly, after dehulling, husks can be highly contaminated with OTA, as also indicated by its enhanced concentration in soluble coffees adulterated with husks and parchment. A minimum water activity of 0.80 (about 14% MC) is required for in vitro OTA production on green coffee, a fact that does not rule out the possibility of OTA contamination due to improper transportation and storage of green coffee. However, this appears not to be a major route for OTA contamination of coffee.
  • OTA contamination can clearly be minimized by following good agricultural practice and a subsequent post-harvest handling consisting of appropriate techniques for drying, grading, transportation and storage of green coffee; these procedures are well established.

Storage, processing and commercialization

The major contributors to contamination are:

  • lack of selection during harvesting
  • delays in drying or rewetting
  • the lack of proper drying, storage and transport conditions
  • the mixing of products with different levels of moisture which increase the potential for cross-contamination.
  • The long commercialization chain involves different intermediaries that use foreign materials to increase the weight of the product without consideration of quality.{http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18286413} 

Ochratoxin is the Most Prevalent Mycotoxin in Coffee Beans Ochratoxin is a potent nephrotoxin (attacks the kidneys) that has been found in barley, oats, rye, wheat, coffee beans and other plant products. Humans have the longest half-life for its elimination of any of the species examined (54). In addition to being a nephrotoxin, animal studies indicate that ochratoxin A is a liver toxin, an immune suppressant, a potent teratogen (can cause fetal malformation) , and a carcinogen.http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC164220/

Surely importing first world countries have established maximum safe limits for ochratoxin A (OTA) in coffee?

Yes that’s true and coffee-producing countries assess OTA contents in lots of green coffee before it is allowed to enter the market. However, there are two problems here:

First, the maximum allowed limits have been set too high

Second, there is still opportunity for mycotoxin contamination to occur during storage in-country. Underestimation of OTA can be highly dangerous for health. Contamination Can Happen Anytime From Farm to Bag Mycotoxins can form on coffee beans at any stage of the supply chain (from farm to bag.) Mycotoxin exposure is almost always accidental.

In general, mycotoxin exposure is more likely to occur in parts of the world where poor methods of food handling and storage are common, where malnutrition is a problem, and where few regulations exist to protect exposed populations. However, even in developed countries, specific subgroups may be vulnerable to mycotoxin exposure. In storage, usually the most important variables are the moisture content of the substrate and the relative humidity of the surroundings. As with other mycotoxins, the substrate on which the molds grow as well as the moisture level, temperature, and presence of competitive microflora interact to influence the level of toxin produced.

Robusta & Dry-processed are Generally the Most Contaminated

In a study analysing 36 green coffee samples of different origin (Colombia, Costa Rica, Brazil, Vietnam, India and Uganda) Robusta beans presented with the most defective beans and dry processed beans appear to have the highest levels of mycotoxin contamination. Coffee Brewing Method Counts In testing preparation methods, An espresso coffee maker resulted in the highest reduction in mycotoxins vs auto-drip and moka brewing methods.[3] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16019819

Mold in food is dangerous enough, that from time to time, foods do get recalled because of mycotoxin contamination. It’s a significant enough issue for one government to lobby the UN to declare a World Mycotoxins Day.

References

  • http://fst.sagepub.com/content/10/1/45
  • http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16332616 [3]
  • http://www.bulletproofexec.com/mycotoxins-in-america/
  • http://www.foodsafetynews.com/2013/04/recall-of-organic-juices-a-lesson-in-mycotoxins/#.UW29v6uPs08
  • http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12113660

Kunal K
Kunal K

Author

Co-Founder, OptimOZ.com.au