Most people are familiar with mold, the black stuff that sometimes lives in the crevices of shower tiles or on the bathtub wall. Surely you recognize the smell of opening an old book or stepping foot in a musty basement. Or maybe you’ve pulled cheese out of the fridge, only to find patches of green mold growing on the surface.
The mold you see on the surface of food – white furry growth on berries, fuzzy green dots on bread, a dusty gray layer on tomato sauce – are obvious signs that your food is contaminated. However, mold is sneaky and not always visible to the naked eye.
Mold needs oxygen, humidity, and nutrients to grow, making our kitchens the prime spot for mold to thrive. Mold lives on all kinds of food. Unfortunately, mold is more than just an unsightly or smelly inconvenience. It’s actually the root cause of dozens, if not hundreds, of serious health problems.
What are food molds?
Have you ever opened the produce drawer of your refrigerator to grab a lemon or a tomato, only to find your fingers sink into its squishy and slimy skin? A closer look reveals a fuzzy coating of mold.
Molds are microscopic fungi, of which there are thousands of species. Tiny mold spores circulate freely in the air or travel with insects or water. These spores are generally harmless in small amounts. However, once a spore lands on a surface, it searches for nutrients and water. Food is often the perfect place for a mold spore to take root.
Mold feeds itself by releasing chemicals that cause food to break down and rot. As food decomposes, the mold feeds on the dying organic matter, reproducing and spreading throughout the food. Mold grows best in dark, damp, and cool conditions, making food a prime source for growth.
Are molds in our food dangerous?
Much to the delight of blue cheese lovers, not all food mold is harmful. Benign strains such as Penicillium roqueforti or Penicillium camemberti are used to make various cheeses.
However, most food mold is toxic and can cause illnesses ranging from chronic fatigue to cardiac arrest. Under the right conditions, some molds produce mycotoxins, poisonous compounds that wreak havoc on the body. Molds pump out these toxic chemicals to ensure that no other strains of mold or bacteria arrive on the scene and compete for their food source. The most notorious type of mycotoxin are aflatoxins. These cancer-causing toxins impact humans and livestock alike.
Symptoms from these toxins can be acute or chronic. Acute symptoms of illness arise quickly after eating and may include vomiting, diarrhea, and liver or kidney deterioration. Long-term symptoms of food mold toxicity include:
- Leaky gut
- Immune disorders
- Skin irritation
- Sleep disorders
- Respiratory infections
- Dementia and other neurological disorders
- Anxiety and depression
- Severe fatigue
- Hair loss
- Gastrointestinal problems
Food mold and the heart
Most health practitioners do not fully understand mold toxicity. Symptoms from mold illness can mirror other diseases, making it easy to miss. Mold illness causes inflammation and free radical stress in the body. In fact, mold is one of the most dangerous toxins to the heart.
It’s not uncommon for individuals with heart palpitations to undergo cardiac testing and walk away with a clean bill of health. The EKG or echocardiogram shows no signs of cardiac disease, yet the skipped heartbeats persist. Upon further mold testing, many individuals realize that the root cause of their abnormal beats derives from mold toxicity. Once the mold has been removed from the body, cardiac issues often resolve.
Research has discovered that mycotoxins in the body can lead to several other cardiovascular diseases. As mold spores enter the body through food, they eventually make their way to the bloodstream. The circulatory system pumps the mold through the blood vessels and the heart. Individuals exposed to mold mycotoxins may experience the following cardiovascular symptoms:
- Irregular heartbeat
- Racing heart
- Low or high blood pressure
- Blood clotting difficulties
- Heart inflammation
- Shortness of breath
How does one become exposed to food mycotoxins?
You are what you eat. Individuals can be exposed directly to mold by eating mold-laden food. Additionally, exposure can happen by eating animals fed mold-contaminated feed.
Food mycotoxins are chemically stable, meaning they can survive food processing and are challenging to detect.
How does food become contaminated with mycotoxins?
Mold growth occurs due to crops being contaminated either before or after harvest or during the storage process. Foods can degrade below the surface and form mold threads deep within the product. Moldy foods are often also simultaneously contaminated with bacteria.
Grains are usually the most affected food product. Unfortunately, detection of fungal toxins is difficult. The food industry has many ways of controlling mold formation in food, and most are not healthy. In addition to utilizing preservatives and chemicals to ward off mold, genetically modified grains have been developed to resist fungal infections.
Top 11 food sources of mold mycotoxins
Whole grains including wheat, barley, oats, and rye
Most people now understand the health dangers associated with gluten, but there is another reason to steer clear of grains in the diet. Whole grains, including wheat, barley, oats, and rye, are commonly contaminated with mycotoxins.
Why are grains so susceptible to mold? First, soil depletion has contributed to additional flooding in many fields, creating damp conditions ideal for mold. More importantly, grain is often stored in huge silos, where it usually sits for extended periods before consumption. These dark, cool storage bins give mold the perfect breeding ground.
Not only are whole grains easily contaminated with mold mycotoxins, but so are the thousands of products made from them, including bread, cereal, and pasta. What’s most concerning is that all grains are fair game when it comes to mold. Even organic or sprouted grains are not safe from dangerous mycotoxins.
Nuts are generally considered a healthy food, and for the most part, they are. However, it’s essential to keep in mind that nuts are typically grown in hot and humid regions, making them a prime mold food source.
Studies have found that some nuts, particularly peanuts and pistachios, are notorious sources of aflatoxin, the well-known mycotoxin associated with cancer and other health disorders. Some suggest that those with peanut allergies are actually allergic to the fungus that hides in every crevice of the peanut.
With the increase in nut milk and nut butter popularity, you may be consuming more mold than you realize. Frequently, manufacturers use the “ugly” nuts to make nut butter and nut milk, increasing the odds of mycotoxin exposure.
To reduce your risk of mold exposure from nuts, only consume raw nuts with the freshest possible date. Store them in an air-tight container. If possible, make your own nut milk and nut butter.
Corn is an American staple. And while most people think that it’s a healthy vegetable, corn is universally contaminated with mold mycotoxins, including aflatoxin and fumonisin.
Corn’s thick husks hold moisture and become a prime breeding ground for mold. Additionally, the way that corn is stored also promotes mold growth.
Unfortunately, the vast majority of animals are fed a corn-based diet. As a result, humans who consume conventionally raised meat may unknowingly consume mold mycotoxins.
Fruit contains two things that mold loves: moisture and sugar. As a result, mold is present in many dried fruits such as figs, dates, raisins, and prunes. Manufacturers often add preservatives, such as sulfites, to dried fruits to avoid mold contamination. Unfortunately, mold is not always deterred by these added chemicals.
Dried fruits can become contaminated with aflatoxin, ochratoxin, and patulin mycotoxins, all of which are detrimental to health. For example, a 2015 study analyzed dried fruit samples and found that 83 percent of dates, 80 percent of raisins, 64 percent of figs, and 59 percent of apricots were contaminated with mycotoxins.
Aged, dry-cured meats
Aged or dry-cured meats are uncooked meats preserved through salt and time. Keeping the meat in the right environment dries it while preventing harmful bacteria from forming. In addition, many butchers use healthy mold cultures on the outside of their meat to keep away undesirable mold.
However, aged meats can still become contaminated with mold that produces mycotoxins. These prominent mycotoxins can be found in dry-cured meats either due to direct mold growth on the products or contaminated feed given to the animals.
The presence of mycotoxins in aged meats has been established worldwide. However, studies have found very little legislation around the safety and regulation of mycotoxins in these dry-cured meats.
Cheese is a moist breeding ground for mold, and many cheese varieties have been found to carry hazardous mycotoxins. Much like aged meat, some cheeses are meant to have mold on them. For example, blue, gorgonzola, and brie are all soft cheeses that are intentionally created using certain healthy molds.
Although generally considered safe, those who are pregnant and immunocompromised are told to steer clear of these mold-filled cheeses. This is because they still have the potential to produce dangerous mycotoxins.
Spices add depth, flavor, and excitement to otherwise bland dishes. Unfortunately, they also have the potential to add heart-harming mycotoxins as well. Many herbs are grown in tropical areas where conditions are ripe for mold. They are then often stored in bulk, becoming vulnerable to additional mold growth.
According to the FDA, 12 percent of spices brought to the United States are contaminated. However, studies have found that number to be low, revealing that four out of every ten spices contain mycotoxins, heavy metals, and bacteria.
To avoid mycotoxin exposure in spices, check your spice jars for moisture or clumping and throw them out if you suspect mold. Whenever possible, use fresh freshly-grown organic herbs.
There’s nothing like the smell of freshly brewed coffee, and taking that first-morning sip is genuinely magical for some people. But what if we told you that you might be sipping toxic mold?
Coffee beans are notorious for carrying harmful mycotoxins. Grown in warm, tropical areas, coffee is a prime candidate for mold growth. Then, processing, shipping, and storing procedures enhance mold growth.
In fact, 45 percent of commercially available coffee contains ochratoxin A, a major mycotoxin that causes severe damage to the human body.
How do you ensure that your daily cup of joe is mold-free? The only accurate way to know is by drinking regularly tested coffee. You’d be surprised to see how few coffee producers actually test their products. Be sure to choose quality, organic coffee with high-quality control standards. Our favorite is Cardiology Coffee.
Everyone knows that alcohol is not part of a healthy diet. But there’s no harm in an occasional cocktail or glass of wine, right? That depends.
Alcohol is the byproduct of fermentation, a process by which brewer’s yeast converts sugar into alcohol. So, by that very definition, alcohol is a mycotoxin. What’s more, producers often use grains contaminated with mycotoxins when making alcoholic beverages.
Studies have found that beer, wine, and spirits are a major source of mold mycotoxins. In fact, ochratoxin A, along with other mycotoxins, are commonly found in most wines, even those that are organic. In addition, research reveals that beer also contains measurable amounts of dangerous mycotoxins.
Many health food lovers have touted dark chocolate as a superfood. But unfortunately, while this delicious indulgence is packed with antioxidants, it may also contain mold.
As with coffee, cocoa beans need constant warm temperatures and humidity to thrive. Mishandled cocoa can get mold growth during the fermentation process and when stored. Studies have found that chocolate is often contaminated with fungi, which then produce aflatoxins and ochratoxin A.
No one likes to waste food – especially in today’s world, where food prices are astronomically high. However, it may be harmful to hang on to food longer than you should.
Food is always best when fresh. It’s best to consume food within 3-4 days of placing it in the refrigerator. Every day that passes offers more opportunities for mold to grow and produce health-depleting mycotoxins.
Is mold and mycotoxin disease treatable?
The first step in treating mycotoxin-related illness is eliminating the source of mold. Avoiding high mycotoxin content foods, such as those listed above, is the best way to ensure that you are reducing exposure to mold. To further minimize your risks, consider the following:
- Eat as our ancestors did, avoiding grains. Eat a diverse diet to ensure you aren’t eating the same food repeatedly. Purchase only fresh products and always organic. Store them in a dry, moisture-free environment.
- Steer clear of peanuts. Inspect other nuts – including pistachios, walnuts, brazil nuts, hazelnuts, and almonds- as all of these are regularly contaminated with aflatoxins. Buy as fresh as possible and always organic. Store in tightly closed containers in a dry, moisture-free environment.
- Store all foods and spices properly. Keep free from moisture and humidity. Store in dry conditions in properly sealed containers.
- Source products like spices and other foods from quality purveyors to ensure the product was appropriately handled throughout food processing to minimize mold exposures and risk.
- Buy small amounts of food as you use them. If products are past their expiration date, replace them with fresh products. Do not keep foods for extended periods without use.
- Clean out your refrigerator and pantry regularly. If there are any signs of mold on food, check all food stored around it to ensure there was no contamination.
- Regularly detox your liver. Consider taking Daily Defense every day. Your liver neutralizes mycotoxins, so it is important to ensure that your liver is fully functioning in the event you come into contact with these compounds.
- Consider adding curcumin to your diet. A recent study showed that curcumin could protect against the harmful effects of specific mycotoxins.
If you are experiencing unexplained cardiac symptoms such as a fast heartbeat, heart palpitations, or unexplained high blood pressure, mold may be to blame. The only accurate way to know if your body contains mold is to get tested. The Mold Mycotoxin test looks for 31 mycotoxins tested from one urine sample. Simple, easy, and affordable.
Eat Well · Live Well · Think Well
Medical Review 2022: Dr. Lauren Lattanza NMD