Questions and Answers about Mycotoxins

Questions and Answers about Mycotoxins

Q. What are mycotoxins?

A. Mycotoxins are a category of naturally-occurring substances that may result from fungal growth on agricultural products either in the field or during harvest and storage. In some cases, the fungi produce mycotoxins as a defense mechanism. Alternatively, the chemicals may simply be a by-product of fungal metabolism. Examples of common mycotoxins are aflatoxin, fumonisin and ochratoxin. In extremely high amounts, some mycotoxins have been found to promote cancer in laboratory animals.

Q. Where are mycotoxins found?

A. Under adverse weather-related growing conditions, such as severe drought or excessive moisture, mycotoxins may occur at low levels in some legumes and grains, such as barley, corn, millet, oats, peanuts, rice sorghum and wheat.

Q. What are natural carcinogens?

A. Natural carcinogens are components that may occur naturally in some food products that can initiate or promote the development of tumors in animals or humans. Some mycotoxins can be classified as natural carcinogens in food if they produce cancer in laboratory animals when tested according to government protocols using extremely large doses. However, there is little evidence that these compounds are a significant public health concern in humans.

Q. Are there any risks from dietary mycotoxins?

A. Agricultural and food manufacturing practices in the United States ensure that mycotoxins do not occur in food in amounts that are significant for human health among adults, children or the elderly. In 1996, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) released a report, Carcinogens and Anticarcinogens in the Human Diet: A Comparison of Naturally Occurring and Synthetic Substances. The report examined hundreds of food components, including mycotoxins, for their potential to cause or protect against cancer. The report concluded that excess calories, fat and alcohol in the American diet pose a greater cancer risk than known naturally occurring or synthetic carcinogens in the food supply. The NAS study committee chairman, Dr. Ronald Estabrook, University of Texas Health Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas stated, "The varied and balanced diet needed for good nutrition-including fruits and vegetables-seems to provide significant protection from the natural toxicants in our foods."

Q. Can mycotoxins be transmitted to humans from animals that eat contaminated feed grain?

A. There is no evidence that mycotoxins can be transferred from meat products to humans. The government does set limits on certain mycotoxins in animal feed to protect animal health and to prevent transmission to humans through milk.

Q. What does the government do to minimize human exposure to mycotoxins?

A. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and state agencies monitor and regulate mycotoxin levels in food for human and animal consumption. Food companies and processors have implemented their own stringent quality-control limits that frequently are more protective than government standards. Government agencies and public and private research institutions are aggressively conducting research on ways to eliminate or reduce mycotoxins in the food supply. The Codex Alimentarius Commission of the United Nations is considering adopting limits on various mycotoxins in foods for international trade.

Q. What are American agriculture, food processors and university researchers doing to minimize human exposure to mycotoxins?

A. The grain supply and related food commodities are constantly monitored by government agencies producers, researchers, processors and seed companies. Each growing season, climatic conditions are carefully monitored to detect areas where crops may be susceptible to mycotoxins. As a normal operating procedure, millers and food processors perform sophisticated tests on inbound shipments to detect mycotoxins. Tests also are performed by food processors on outbound shipments to protect the safety of the food supply.

In addition, government, academic and industry groups continue to conduct research to find ways to improve the resistance of crops to and eventually even eliminate mycotoxins. This research includes plant breeding, improved agricultural practices, processing methods and food biotechnology to eliminate mycotoxins.

Q. Are there ways to eliminate mycotoxins from the food supply?

A. The food industry, government agencies and university researchers are devoting substantial financial and human resources to developing technologies that may prevent the production of mycotoxins or methods to minimize mycotoxins during storage and food processing and production.

During food production and processing, the presence of mycotoxins is significantly reduced or virtually eliminated by milling, grinding and other processing methods. For example, the processes used to manufacture field corn (non sweet corn) products such as meal, flour, grits, bran, tortillas and snack foods greatly reduce the level of any mycotoxins. Ready-to-eat breakfast cereals like corn flakes and puffed or pressed corn cereals are virtually free of mycotoxins. Corn used in products such as tortillas and corn chips are soaked in a lime or alkali solution and washed, which eliminates or greatly reduces any existing mycotoxins. Fresh (on the cob or cut), frozen and canned sweet corn are virtually free of mycotoxins.

Wet-milled food products, such as cornstarch, carry little or no mycotoxin residues. In separate research projects, cornstarch was found to contain almost no mycotoxin residues. Cornstarch is the raw material used in production of corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, food grade starch, dextrin, modified food starch, polyols and numerous other food ingredients. Corn germ may contain minute, if any, levels of mycotoxins. Processing corn germ into corn oil further reduces any remaining minute levels of mycotoxins.

Additional Background Information on Mycotoxins:

Definitions of Common Mycotoxins

National Academy of Sciences "Carcinogens and Anticarcinogens in the Human Diet," Report of the Committee on Comparative Toxicology of Naturally Occurring Carcinogens, Board on Environmental Studies and Toxicology, Commission on Life Sciences, National Research Council.

Food and Drug Administration "Background on Fumonisin"

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