Spices are the backbone of countless cuisines and can transform humble ingredients into delicious and nutritious meals. However, lurking amidst the colors and flavors of our favorite spices is a silent, flavorless contaminant that can ultimately hurt our health– mycotoxins. In this article, we’ll delve into the troubling issue of mycotoxins in spices, how to minimize your exposure to mycotoxins while still enjoying your food, and how to detox your body from these pervasive contaminants. Let’s dive in!
The Sneaky Contaminant in Your Spice Rack
Mycotoxins are toxic compounds produced by fungi, including mold. They can cause harmful health effects if we are exposed to them in significant quantities, either through a mold-contaminated indoor environment or food. For many people, food is their most significant source of mycotoxin exposure. (Source)
Mycotoxins are primarily produced by the following types of molds: Aspergillus, Penicillium, Fusarium, and Alternaria and go by names like aflatoxin, ochratoxin, fumonisins, zearalenone, citrinin, and trichothecenes. Common foods containing mycotoxins include wheat, corn, rice, oats, and peanuts. And recently, spices have been added to this list.
Spices are generally more susceptible to mycotoxin accumulation than herbs. They are comprised of the dried root, stalk, seed, or flower of an edible plant, while herbs comprise the leaves and flowers. Spices are generally consumed dried, while herbs are often consumed fresh. These variations in the part of the plant being used and how it is consumed may explain why mycotoxin levels are higher in spices than in herbs.
How do mycotoxins end up in spices in the first place?
Most spices, such as turmeric, ginger, and cinnamon, are grown in and imported from countries in tropical and subtropical climates with high temperatures, humidity, and heavy rainfall. These climatic conditions promote fungal growth in spices. The fungi, in turn, can produce mycotoxins that contaminate the spices. (Source)
Aflatoxin is one of the most frequently identified mycotoxins in spices. It is found in “moderate,” “high,” and “very high” levels in chili, black pepper, white pepper, ginger, fennel, turmeric, coriander, cinnamon, nutmeg, paprika, and thyme. Conversely, aflatoxin levels are low in caraway, cinnamon, white pepper, thyme, oregano, and basil. Ochratoxin is often found at “high” and “very high” in black pepper, chili, ginger, fennel, and turmeric.
In short, chili, paprika, black pepper, white pepper, ginger, and turmeeric appear to be some of the most mycotoxin-contaminated spices; and happen to be among the most frequently consumed spices worldwide. More concerning, concentrations of aflatoxin and ochratoxin in these particular spices often exceed the maximum permissible limit. (Source)
Few studies have examined other mycotoxins in spices, such as citrinin and fumonisins. However, in the available studies, the spices that tend to be most contaminated with aflatoxin and ochratoxin are also contaminated with these other mycotoxins.
On a positive note, some spices are resistant to fungal growth and can inhibit mycotoxin production. These spices include basil, cloves, mint, oregano, and thyme. We may be wise to favor these spices in our diets!
Are Organic spices safer?
Are organic spices lower in mycotoxins than conventionally grown spices? The available research shows that organic spices may also harbor mycotoxins similar to conventional herbs. While organic spices may be better for other reasons, such as having lower herbicide and pesticide residues, organic vs. conventional growing methods don’t affect mycotoxin accumulation. (Source)
Even though spices are typically consumed in small amounts, continuous consumption can cause mycotoxin exposures to add up over time and potentially hurt our health.
What are the Risks of Mycotoxins in Spices?
The potential health risks of consuming mycotoxins in spices depend on the type of mycotoxins one is exposed to. For example, aflatoxin and ochratoxin can harm the liver and kidneys and promote aberrant cell growth. (Source, Source, Source)
In short, mycotoxins have various harmful health effects, so we want to minimize our intake of them as much as possible.
Are Mycotoxins in Spices Regulated?
There are no universal guidelines for regulating mycotoxins in spices. Regulation of mycotoxin contamination in spices is primarily up to individual countries or groups of countries. For example, the European Union currently has the strictest regulations of any country governing the allowable levels of mycotoxins in spices. By comparison, rules and guidelines for permissible mycotoxin levels in foods are much looser in the U.S. In fact, the U.S. has no upper limit for ochratoxin, one of the most prevalent and concerning mycotoxins, in food. (Source)
So how can you limit exposure to these toxic substances? One option is to purchase spices from organizations who buy from farmers that use good agricultural practices (GAP), good manufacturing practices (GMP), and/or good hygienic practices (GHP). Spice farmers who grow spices while following these standards may produce spices that are less likely to be contaminated with mold and mycotoxins.
Here’s How You Can Address Your Exposure to Mycotoxins in Spices
While you (most likely) can’t completely avoid mycotoxins in spices, you can take steps to reduce your exposure and help your body detoxify them.
As we discussed earlier, favoring spices that are low in mycotoxins, such as basil, cloves, mint, oregano, and thyme, may help reduce your exposure. Source spices from spice companies with high-quality standards that use GAP, GMP, or GHP practices. However, even if you take these measures, you can’t completely avoid mycotoxins exposure. This is where supporting your body’s natural detoxification process comes into play!
Bitter herbs such as milk thistle, artichoke, and dandelion are excellent for promoting bile flow, helping usher toxins within your body into your bile. Milk thistle (Silybum marianum), a prickly plant from the Asteraceae (Daisy) family, has an extensive history of use in traditional Western herbalism for supporting the liver, the body’s detox “hub.” Milk thistle contains several bioactive compounds that support bile flow and detoxification, including silymarin. Dandelion helps protect the liver, the body’s detoxification “hub” against oxidative stress, ensuring that detox processes run smoothly. (Source, Source)
Once your bile is flowing, you can use binders to help capture bile so it can be removed in your stool. Binders are supplements that mop up toxins in your gut so they can be removed when you have a bowel movement instead of recirculating through your body. For this reason, binders are also called “toxin binders.” Many binders can bind mycotoxins, including activated charcoal, clay, and zeolite. (Source, Source, Source)
The Bottom Line on Mycotoxins in Spices
It may be impossible to completely avoid mycotoxins in spices; after all, doing so would cause us to miss out on many cuisines! However, there are steps you can take to minimize your exposure to mycotoxins in spices and help your body detoxify. You can favor spices that are low in mycotoxins, such as basil, cloves, mint, oregano, and thyme. In addition, with detox support provided by bitter herbs and binders, you can help your body naturally toxins, including mycotoxins, so you can enjoy your favorite spices and eat them, too!
by Lindsay Christensen, MS, CNS, LDN, A-CFHC, CKNS
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