What Are Mycotoxins?

Medically Reviewed by Sabrina Felson, MD on February 21, 2024
3 min read

Mycotoxins are poisonous substances produced by fungi or mold. They can be toxic for humans when they are eaten, absorbed into the skin, or inhaled. A small amount of mycotoxin can be damaging to human or animal health and even cause death. Poisoning by mycotoxins is called mycotoxicosis. You may be familiar with this condition if you’ve heard about what happens if you drink moldy coffee. 

Mycotoxins are an umbrella group of toxins that can grow on the following: 

  • Nuts
  • Cereals
  • Spices
  • Dried fruit
  • Apples
  • Coffee beans

How Do Mycotoxins Spread?

Typically, mycotoxins are created by the following conditions:

  • Environmental factors 
  • Poor harvesting practices of crops
  • Exposure during transportation, processing, selling of crops

Usually, mycotoxins are found in warm and humid conditions. They may be more widespread in our era than in previous times due to global warming. Mycotoxins are spreading in low-income countries where many of the crops they thrive on are staple foods. 

Often in these countries, people are exposed to smaller amounts of mycotoxin for longer periods. Richer countries have more stringent processes to ensure that this does not happen. There are currently experiments being done to create easy mycotoxin removal techniques that can be used at home, and especially in tropical environments. 

Mycotoxins are particularly prevalent in coffee.  However, it has been shown that this prevalence can be reduced by adequately storing, transporting, and processing coffee. Typically, roasting coffee beans is an essential step. Roasting prevents higher levels of mycotoxins in coffee and renders the product mold-free. The highest levels of mycotoxins in coffee are often found in countries that produce their own internal supply of the drink. 

Coffee mold exposure symptoms or mold exposure symptoms generally may be grouped in several ways. First, there are two different kinds of exposure — acute and chronic. 

Acute exposure presents symptoms that are very severe and quick to show up. Symptoms are caused by exposure to large amounts of mycotoxins in one sitting.

Chronic mycotoxicosis is exposure to a low dosage of mycotoxins for an extended period. It can result in cancers and other serious health consequences.

Much of the data on mycotoxin poisoning is unreliable. This is due to the fact that many of the countries most affected have loose regulations. In addition, to truly understand mycotoxin poisoning, you need to conduct extensive environmental and lifestyle testing. In the case of these countries, both reporting and detecting mycotoxins is not always done.

While different strains of mycotoxins produce varying symptoms in people, many of the main symptoms are:

  • Difficulty with digestion
  • Difficulty digesting proteins
  • Damage to the immune system 
  • Damage to the lungs 

It has been found that these symptoms are worsened by:

It has been suggested that several obscure diseases may be connected with mycotoxins, but further research needs to be done. 

Treatment for mycotoxin poisoning involves treating whatever disease is being caused by it and minimizing exposure to mycotoxins. On the whole, there is more emphasis on preventing mycotoxin exposure.

Mycotoxins can grow on the surface of foods as well as penetrate deep within the food. However, mycotoxins rarely grow on properly stored food that is dry and clean.

To properly prevent mycotoxin exposure: 

  • Pay special attention to your whole grains, dried fruits, and nuts for signs of mold or decay.
  • Try not to store or eat damaged grains.
  • Purchase dried goods that are fresh.
  • Store your foods in environments that do not have insects and are not too warm. 
  • Do not keep foods for overly long periods.
  • Eat a wide variety of foods.

Unfortunately, there are certain types of environmental mycotoxins that are harder to identify and prevent. Keep in mind that you could be exposed by breathing it or coming into skin contact with it.