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Molds: the fungus among us.

"Our child which dyed about the middle of April 1692; was as well and as thriving a child as most was: tell it was about eight weeks old ... Mary Estick and Sorah Cloyes and I myself was taken with strange kinds of fitts: but it pleased Allmightly God to Deliver me from them: but quickly after this our poor yong child was taken about midnight with strange and violent fitts ... it continewed ... for about Two day and Two nights and then departed this life by a cruell and violent death being enuf to piers a stony hart.

-Deposition of John Putman weaver; and Hannah his wife

The question in late 1692 before the court in Salem, Massachusetts, was whether the "witch" who was on trial had killed the Putnam's baby by casting a spell over it.

But could the child-and hundreds of other "bewitched" townfolk-have in fact been poisoned by eating bread made from mold-infested rye grain? Some researchers think so.

Modern food-production techniques ensure that moldy foods no longer produce mass hallucinations and panic. But could molds pose a more subtle, longer term danger?

Until the government starts to systematically monitor our food for the toxic chemicals produced by molds we'll never know.

Mold can make people crazy At least that's what Mary Kilbourne Matossian says.

in her book Poisons of the Past: Molds, Epidemics, and History (Yale University Press, 1989), the historian at the University of Maryland at College Park argues that moldy rye flour used to make bread in Salem in 1692 produced a poison called ergot, which contains mind-altering compounds similar to the hallucinogenic drug LSD.

And it was ergot poisoning, she contends, that was responsible for the Salem witch affair.

Her evidence? Among other things:

* Many of the symptoms of "bewitchment" (the feeling of being pinched or pricked, temporary blindness and deafness, burning sensations, nausea, and hallucinations) match those of ergot poisoning.

* Animals suffered from some of the same symptoms, which argues against psychological" explanations.

*Three women who attended a witch's coven said that the sacramental bread was red. Rye bread made from flour with a high ergot content is red.

We'll never know if the moldy-rye hypothesis is correct. Three hundred years have passed, though, and modern methods of food production, storage, and transportation just about guarantee that we'll never see a Salem 11.

But molds haven't gone away. They still infect our grain crops. They still grow in our refrigerators. They still turn our bread green and our tomatoes fuzzy.

Don't Be

Penicillium. "There a

dozens, possibly hundreds of species

of mold that can affect our food," says

Lloyd Bullerman, a microbiologist at

the University of Nebraska at Lincoln who specializes in food molds.

Some of these molds produce toxic chemicals, known as mycotoxins, although it's not at all clear why they do.

The bluish-green molds that grow on breads and on acidic fruits and vegetables like tomatoes, for example, belong to the Penicillium family. Some penicilliums can produce unsavory mycotoxins like ochratoxin, but many others seem to be benign.

The same goes for the molds that will form on cheeses. "They're not much of a problem," says Bullerman. "Most of the toxins they produce are unstable or can be removed by trimming."

The bottom line is that if you carefully trim away mold on firm fruits and vegetables and hard cheeses, and if you throw away soft foods and dairy products with any mold on them, you should be able to protect yourself against just about anything your refrigerator throws at you. (See box on page 7)

Don't try to cook molds away, though; cooking doesn't destroy many mycotoxins.

The riskiest molds-those that produce the mycotoxins the government should monitor-usually grow not in our refrigerators, but in the fields and storage bins of our farms. If they make it into our food, it's likely to be via heat, corn,and other grains.

A Bad Case of the Staggers.

Farmers have long known that moldy grain can be dangerous. Farm animals that eat mycotoxin-tainted feed suffer from conditions like "slobber syndrome" and "staggers." Many die or miscarry.

And it's generally bread or other products made from moldy grain that are responsible for outbreaks of mold poisoning in humans, which almost always occur in the Third World.

In 1987, for example, thousands of people in the Kashmir Valley of india suffered abdominal pain and other symptoms after eating bread made from moldy wheat. The outbreak was apparently caused by mycotoxins called trichothecenes, which include deoxynivalenol (DON).

And an often-fatal kidney disease known as Balkan endemic nephropathy, which affects people who live in rural areas of Bulgaria, Romania, and Yugoslavia, has been linked with ochratoxin A, a mycotoxin that can contaminate beans, grains, and some of the meat of pigs hat eat tainted grain. Myco-Carcinogens. Mold contamination reaches the high levels seen in many developing countries. In part, that's because our food production is more carefully controlled. And, we seldom have to choose between eating moldy food and going hungry.

In fact, no documented outbreaks of human poisoning or death from mycotoxins have ever been reported in the U.S. That's comforting.

But if low levels of mycotoxins caused long-term health problems like cancer or weakened immune systems, we'd never know it, because the government doesn't regularly monitor our food for the presence of most poisons that are produced by molds. And that's not at all comforting.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture does routinely look for allatoxin-the best-known of the mycotoxins-at least in peanuts. But it pretty much ignores two other possible cancer causers,ochratoxin A and zearalenone, and looks for a fourth mycotoxin (DON)-one that could weaken the immune system-only when grain-producers ask it to.

Aflacontroversy. Aflatoxin, which occurs mostly in moldy peanuts and corn, has been called one of the most potent carcinogens ever tested in laboratory animals.

And it's only one of 50 substances the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) calls carcinogenic to humans.

But a few scientists question whether it really does cause cancer in people. Colin Campbell, a nutritionist at Cornell University, has carried out a large study of liver cancer, which is the main cancer linked to aflatoxin. The culprit, he believes, is not aflatoxin; it's the hepatitis B virus.

Until the controversy is settled, play it safe and stick to well-known brands of peanut butter and corn-based cereals and other products. (Aflatoxin isn't a problem in sweet corn like corn-onthe-cob or canned or frozen corn kernels, though.)

According to tests carried out last year by Consumer Reports magazine, aflatoxin levels were lowest in major brands of peanut butter like Jif, Skippy, and Peter Pan. The most aflatoxin was found in fresh-ground peanut butters from supermarkets and health food stores.

Also, don't eat moldy or shriveled-up peanuts and throw away the entire box of cornmeal whenever you see any mold.

Not so Okey-Dokey. There is clear evidence" that ochratoxin A causes cancer in rats, according to the National Toxicology Program. Other studies show that it also causes cancer in mice.

And in Balkan areas where kidney problems linked to ochratoxin are common, people are 28 times more likely to develop cancer of the urinary tract-and 88 times more likely to develop a particular type of kidney cancer-than people living in Balkan areas where ochratoxin is not common.(1(

Although that's not proof, it's certainly reason to suspect that ochratoxin A may cause cancer in humans.

But how much of it is in our food? No one really knows.

In the United States, some surveys have found low levels of ochratoxin A in as much as three percent of the wheat and 14 percent of the barley sampled, although a recent DA survey found no trace of it in 350 samples of foods, including wheat and barley.

Several European countries have set maximum legal limits for ochratoxin; the U.S. and Canada have not.

Another mycotoxin, zearalenone, which is produced by one of the Fusarium molds, is occasionally found in corn products like breakfast cereals and cornmeal. it causes pituitary tumors in male and female mice and liver tumors in female mice. The surveys that have been carried out, however, appear to pose a minimal risk.

Unquiet Flows the DON. Fusarium molds can produce dozens of different mycotoxins called trichothecenes. In the few surveys that have been conducted, one of them, deoxynivalenol (DON), frequently turns up at low levels in breakfast cereals, breads, and baby foods.

"DON has been a big problem this year in wheat grown in the Midwest," says FDA chemist Garnett Wood.

A survey in Michigan following the 1988 drought found DON in half of 92 grain-based foods. Cereals made from corn and rice were most frequently

Moldies but Goodies Not all molds are bad In fact, some can save your life or send your tastebuds (safely) into orbit.,

* The antibiotic penicillin is produced by two molds: Penicillium notatum and Penicillium chrysogenurn.

* Some people think cheese is mold. It's not, but mold does help ripen" some cheeses like Brie and Camembert, which owe their white skin" to Penicillium camemberti And that pungent smell-and the bluish-green discoloration-coveted by blue cheese fans comes from Penicillium roquefortl

* Thank Bowm cinerea, better known as the noble rot, " for helping to produce some of the world's rarest sweet white wines. The mold infests the grapes, injuring their skins and allowing moisture to evaporate. The result- a raisin-like grape that produces an intensely flavored special-edition sauterne or spatlese.

Cut or Toss? One way to avoid molds in your refrigerator is to treat your produce gently Molds just love bruises

If any hard or firm foods become moldy, cut out the mold and at least an inch of food around and under it Men a soft food develops mold (no matter how little), toss the whole thing out.

Here are some examples of "Cut' and Toss " foods. - TOSS



spinach, lettuce, other

leafy greens

bananas, peaches, melons


breads, cakes, rolls, flour

cheeses like Brie or


luncheon meat and cheese


yogurt, tub spreads

cream cheese, cottage

cheese, etc.)

canned foods

peanut butter


most cooked leftovers



broccoli, caulifiower



garlic, onions



zucchini, winter squash

apples, pears

cheeses like cheddar or

Swiss chunks)
COPYRIGHT 1991 Center for Science in the Public Interest
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1991, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
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Title Annotation:molds in food products; includes information on whether to cut mold off or throw away the food, and on good molds
Author:Schmidt, Stephen
Publication:Nutrition Action Healthletter
Date:Nov 1, 1991
Previous Article:Stripped-juice tease.
Next Article:The nineteen-ninety-one fast food awards.

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