The idea that there might be hidden mold in your coffee, or possibly in other foods you are consuming, is a super disturbing thought! But don't stress, because we're going to explain this concept here so that you'll be better informed and aware of how to handle it.
You may have heard the term mycotoxin before. But even if you haven’t, you have most definitely heard of a more general version of the word, which is mold. Mycotoxins are a classification of toxic chemicals produced by some fungi (mold) that can have a damaging effect on our health, potentially causing serious health problems or making existing problems worse. (1)
Mycotoxins are found growing on familiar food crops, some of which many people consume on a near daily basis. They are found most commonly on popular food crops such as grains including barley, sorghum, rye and corn. The mold can also be present in everything made with those grains, such as cereal, bread and pasta. Mycotoxins also grow on coffee beans, peanuts (sad news for peanut butter lovers), cheese, alcoholic beverages (especially beer, due to the yeast content) and sugar cane. With sugar cane, not only does it contain mycotoxins, but the sugar itself that we eat feeds and supports any mold already living and growing in our bodies, such as a fungal infection known as candida.
Mycotoxins can develop naturally on plants for a few reasons. Sometimes the plant creates them as a means of barrier protection against predators and disease (2). Other times they form as a result of poor storage conditions after the plants have been harvested and spoilage occurs, causing mold to grow. Often times however they develop as a result of the environment where the plant is grown, in weather conditions that encourage mold development, such as warm and humid climates (mainly countries in Africa, Asia and South America, but the right climate conditions can also occur in Europe and North America) (3).
There are many different kinds of mycotoxins, but the five most commonly identified are aflatoxin, vomitoxin, ochratoxin A, fumonisin, and zearalenone. We won’t get into the details of each individual kind listed there as they all have varying effects on our health, but the one we will highlight a bit is called aflatoxins. They are a common one that is an extremely potent carcinogen, as well as mutagenic substances that can damage your DNA! (4)
We won’t try to list all of the health effects associated with mold contamination, as there are many, but if you’re interested in a comprehensive listing of all the health effects associated with mold contamination, you can see it here. The health effects of consuming mycotoxins range from mild cases such as athlete’s foot to chronic conditions such as chronic fatigue syndrome (5). They can also cause extreme diseases such as liver cancer. (6).
“Consuming grains or other foods contaminated with certain mycotoxins can be fatal if the toxins are present at very high levels. Long-term exposure to mycotoxins can increase cancer risk, and suppress the immune system, among other health problems.” (7).
There are a few ways we can come into contact with mycotoxins during our daily lives. The way we are exposed to them can occur through drinking and eating contaminated items, breathing in the mold spores, and absorbing them through our skin.
Avoiding foods contaminated with mycotoxins is unfortunately nearly impossible as mycotoxins pollute such a large amount of the food supply (8). In an effort to reduce the toxic effects that consuming too many mycotoxins can cause in people, there is legislation throughout 100 different countries that regulates the levels of how much mycotoxins are permissible on food that is sold (9). Although mycotoxins are prevalent in the food system, one way on how to prevent mycotoxin levels from building up in our bodies is to try to avoid consuming more than we have to by limiting or avoiding those food crops that are most likely to contain mycotoxins. For instance, we can drink coffee that is tested to contain an even lower level of mycotoxins than what is permitted by governments by purchasing brands that make an effort to offer the lowest mycotoxin containing beans available. We can also reduce our intake of the types of food that contain the highest levels of mycotoxins, such as peanut butter. Instead of only ever eating peanut butter when you’re in the mood for it, try swapping it for different types of nut or seed butters every now and then, such as almond or sunflower.
Although exposure to mycotoxins is nearly impossible to avoid, there are a few steps we can take to help detoxify some from our body. One way is by using known mycotoxin binders that can help absorb these toxins from our body. These materials sequester the toxins by wrapping themselves around them and then pull them from the body. Some binding agents to try are activated charcoal and bentonite clay (10, 11). Activated charcoal can be taken as a powdered form in capsules that can be swallowed, and bentonite clay can be purchased as a powder or liquid form which can then be added to a glass of water for drinking. Half a teaspoon in a glass of water is a good amount to start with. Or you can also enjoy it’s effective detoxification powers by adding about a ¼ of a cup to your bath to soak in!
Another known mycotoxin binder is chlorella (12). Chlorella can be taken in a powder form added to smoothies or blended with other beverages such as tea or coffee, or you can take it in tablet form which you can either munch on or swallow with a big glass of water.
One important thing to keep in mind when using any of these binding agents is that not only will they help to remove any unwanted toxins from your body, they will also absorb the good stuff that you’d prefer to keep! If you take supplements or any kind of medication, make sure to time the consumption of any of these detoxification agents a few hours before or after taking your supplements and other medication.
As always when trying new things such as detoxifying plants and supplements, speak with your Naturopath doctor to make sure these detox methods are safe for you.