What is mold contamination and how can mold on food affect me?
Mold is a naturally occurring microscopic fungus that grows on plant and animal species. It’s a very opportunistic organism that’s only visible to the human eye once it begins to flourish, and can spontaneously grow almost anywhere. As a fungus that feeds on organic matter, it can grow on your leftover food, in the soil in your garden— or even, in some situations— on your toenails.
Some foods are made with mold, like blue cheese and brie, and tend to be well-tolerated when consumed. However, other molds can release extremely toxic chemicals called mycotoxins — which have been proven to pose a serious health risk to humans, potentially resulting in death— according to the World Health Organization.
While everyone is exposed to a small amount of mold here and there, mold contamination is extremely toxic and has serious long-term effects on the body. WHO warns that mold exposure and harmful mycotoxins should be kept to an absolute minimum, and advises the public to take action to ensure their safety from food mold contamination.
Are you still with us? Keep reading to learn everything you need to know about food mold, and what you can do to prevent mold contamination in your home.
Where does food mold come from?
The biggest factor accounting for food spoilage is mold contamination. In order for mold to reproduce, the fungus omits tiny little spores that spread through the air, in water, jump from animal to animal— and can easily land on your food. Once it’s found its way onto your food, it feeds itself by producing chemicals that force the food to break down and rot. Depending on the species, food mold can have various textures, appearance and smell.
Is food mold dangerous?
There are mold species that can be lurking in your home that pose a critical threat to your health, such as stachybotrys (black mold), aspergillus, and fusarium. Most of these fungi thrive in damp, warm locations but can easily find their way indoors and on your food, especially on meat or poultry products.
These are globally recognized as extremely dangerous molds that should be readily removed from your home as soon as possible; prolonged exposure to such toxins can result in flu-like symptoms, stomach issues, and even respiratory damage or organ failure. People with compromised immune systems or young children are especially vulnerable to mold contamination taking over their body, and leading to long-term health complications.
Some molds, such as those found in nut and grain varieties, are subject to conditions that not only enable the rapid growth of mold, but also the release of a harmful by-product called mycotoxins— the most dangerous mycotoxin being the aflatoxin. Here is a list of food molds that are considered the most dangerous and where they may appear:
- Aspergillus: Aspergillus flavus and parasiticus are responsible for the release of aflatoxins, the most poisonous mycotoxin known. These species grow in soil, hay, decaying vegetation and crops. Some plants and products that are frequently affected by these molds are cereals, spices, oil seeds and tree nuts (corn, wheat, rice, turmeric, ginger, coriander, black pepper, chili peppers, cotton seeds, soy beans, peanuts, sunflower seeds, pistachios, brazil nuts, almonds, walnuts and coconuts). These contaminants can also be found in animal milk that have been fed such crops and passed onto humans. Aflatoxins are also genotoxic, which essentially means they can seriously damage human DNA, potentially inducing cancer. There is also evidence that aflatoxins can lead to life-threatening liver poisoning or liver cancer in humans. It’s also known to cause allergic reactions and even a specific lung infection that has come to have its own name: Aspergillosis.
- Aspergillus and Penicillium: These two molds produce a mycotoxin called Ochratoxin A, a common food contaminant that occurs while crops are in storage. Toxicology studies have concluded that this mycotoxin is known to suppress the immune system, cause harmful effects on fetal development and also long-term kidney damage. Foods that are commonly contaminated with Ochratoxin A are coffee beans and products, cereal products, grape juice, licorice, spices, wine, and dried vine-fruit products.
- Aspergillus, Penicillium and Byssochlamys: These three molds are the primary culprits that produce a mycotoxin called Patulin. This mycotoxin is usually found on fruits— specifically apples— although it also grows on grains and some other citrus products. According to WHO, human consumption of patulin is majorly due to apple juice and other fruit juices that are made with contaminated fruits. Kidney, spleen and liver damage have been reported in animals along with toxic effects on the immune systems. In humans, gastrointestinal side effects have been noted; however, patulin is also considered a genotoxin with the potential to drastically alter human DNA. The carcinogenic effects of this contaminant have not yet been determined.
- Fusarium: Fusarium is a fungus that’s known to grow in soil and produces a variety of different toxins, including deadly trichothecenes— an extremely toxic by-product of mold known to cause severe damage in humans, such as rapid degradation of the skin and mucosa. Fusarium also produces zearalenone (ZEN) and fumonisins; ZEN has been shown to have a hormonal impact on estrogen levels and is linked to infertility, while fumonisins has direct correlations to esophageal cancer in humans, and acute liver and kidney damage in animals.
Can mold on food make you sick?
Yes, food mold can certainly make you sick.
Some foods (such as cheese) use mold to create unique flavours and texture, although that doesn’t mean eating moldy cheese is a good idea. Once you see mold on food, it’s already at a stage that’s harmful to your health— even if simply inhaled. Mold has been proven to cause cardiovascular issues, and is a breeding ground for all kinds of harmful bacteria, such as E-coli, Salmonella and Listeria, which can consequently cause food poisoning. Common symptoms of food poisoning from mold contamination include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, severe stomach pain, and in extreme cases, death. It’s a good rule of thumb to throw away cheese once it begins to get moldy (especially soft cheese), since the toxins may have already spread deeper; although, some people can cut off the moldy part without any issues, particularly with hard cheeses.
Others who may have certain food sensitivities or chronic health ailments are more susceptible to the harms of food mold. For example, people who are gluten-intolerant are more vulnerable to the detrimental effects of mold contamination and may have an adverse reaction when consuming these foods. In fact, mold can easily take over the body when the immune system is suppressed, leading to a series of multifaceted health complications; it’s been proven in patients with Lyme Disease that a major factor contributing to treatment failure is the presence of another toxic, chronic issue suppressing the immune system and preventing recovery: mold contamination.
Mold in any form should therefore be regarded as a huge health risk to humans and animals, and should exercise caution when consuming food products that contain or may have been subject to mold contamination. Even very small amounts of mold have the potential to not only suppress your immune system first and foremost, making you vulnerable to prolonged battles with various disease and illness— but can even team up with other toxins in your system you didn’t know were there, making your body a new breeding ground for a wide range of pathogenic organisms, such as staph, strep, yeast, or even parasites. The health issues born from mold can become extremely complicated and overwhelming, and most doctors are unable to properly address the issue since mold contamination isn’t something that’s traditionally understood in western medicine. If you suspect your immune function is suppressed as a result of mold exposure, most people seek help from naturopaths or integrative medicine doctors, where various tests can be thoroughly conducted and analyzed.