That morning cup of coffee gives you pep, but a new study found that it might also be giving you mycotoxins, toxic metabolites produced by fungi. Since mycotoxins are carcinogenic to humans, do we now need to worry that a steaming hot pot of coffee is killing us?

C’mon now. Not our coffee!

An analysis of 100 brands of commercially available coffees sold in Spain revealed the presence of these mycotoxins in every sample. Dr. Emilia Ferrer of the University of Valencia in Spain and her colleagues explain that mycotoxins are compounds produced by filamentous fungi – such as Aspergillus or Fusarium – which have been linked to liver cancer and other diseases.

The toxic effect of mycotoxins on human and animal health is known as mycotoxicoses. Humans are usually exposed to mycotoxins by ingestion, but they can also be inhaled or absorbed through the skin.

Scientists didn’t pay much attention to mycotoxins until 1960, when a form of mycotoxicoses related to animal feed called turkey X disease began sickening farm animals in England. The one positive thing that came from the crisis was that scientists discovered that mycotoxins are hepatocarcinogens – agents that cause cancer of the liver. [1]

The presence of mycotoxins in crops is determined by temperature, humidity, amounts of rainfall and other environmental factors, and cannot be avoided entirely. This is why mycotoxins are permitted in small amounts in food.

The coffee samples analyzed in Spain contained ochratoxin A, the only legislated mycotoxin. Five of the coffees contained illegal levels of the substance, which has been associated with kidney disease and urothelial tumors in humans. Of the samples that contained illegal levels of mycotoxins, 2 were decaffeinated coffees, 2 were caffeinated coffee capsules, and one was a decaffeinated coffee capsule. The samples exceeded the legal limit six-fold. [2]

“A lack of legislation on coffee regarding the rest of the mycotoxins that have been detected, their toxic effects and the concentration values obtained are making it necessary that we pay special attention to these contaminants which are present in a product that is consumed this much,” notes Dr. Ferrer.

OK, so your coffee might have carcinogens in it. That’s never good news. But to answer the question of whether or not you should be weary of sipping coffee at your desk during the day, the answer is: We don’t know.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), there have indeed been cases of mycotoxicoses, but the worst cases of that occurred in people who inhaled enormous amounts of mycotoxins, such as farmers and workers who spend lots of time in silos filed with moldy grain. Those people also recovered when they were removed from that environment.

And as for those who developed liver cancer from mycotoxins, most of them were from underdeveloped countries where grain is not always handled safely. Additionally, many of those individuals were suffering from hepatitis B or HIV/AIDS, which suppressed their immunity and made them more likely to have a reaction to mold.

Of course, Dr. Ferrer and her team say they don’t really know if the levels of mycotoxins they found in the coffee samples are something to worry about because no one has ever conducted a population health risk assessment for coffee.

It’s important to remember that there are a number of coffee health benefits that may far outweigh the mycotoxin risk, but if you’re a pot-a-day coffee drinker and this study bothers you, you can always go the Bulletproof Coffee route. Bulletproof Coffee got its claim to fame from combining butter with coffee to give the beverage a natural boost of energy. The stuff is expensive, but Bulletproof Coffee is chosen and handled in such a way as to avoid mycotoxin contamination. There’s really no way to tell if mycotoxins are in your favorite coffee brand.

Incidentally, mycotoxins are also found in cereals, wine, spices, dried fruit, cocoa, poultry and pork sausages and peanut butter.

Down the hatch!

This article originally appeared at Natural Society.


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