Are mycotoxins ruining the health benefits of coffee? A fair-balance discussion

Does the coffee you drink every day have mycotoxins? Yes, according to researchers. Mycotoxins are naturally occurring mold toxins found in susceptible grains, nuts, beer, wines and coffees.  Their presence and concentrations depend on various conditions---humidity levels, temperature, rainfall and storage conditions.

 There are dozens of types of mycotoxins; however, regulators and health advocates are most concerned about ochratoxin A (OTA). OTA is naturally occurring and highly prevalent. Medical researchers have linked excess OTA exposure with liver cancer, renal failure and neurotoxicity that may lead to Alzheimer’s disease (AD) and Parkinson’s disease.

If every person on earth were tested for OTA, 100% of us would test positive. It’s not whether we are consuming OTA, but how much we are consuming. The OTA-in-coffee issue has stoked controversy and disagreement between those who are concerned that the U.S. Department of Agriculture is too lax, and those who point to evidence (from Europe) showing that most commercial samples of coffee have only 2% to 3% of the level regarded as safe.

The coffee I am drinking is a popular commercial brand,
and it probably contains mycotoxins. Despite that, available
data leads me to believe that the benefits of drinking coffee
outweigh the risks of ochratoxin A exposure. 
 Also, we know that decaffeinated coffee has more OTA than caffeinated coffee, because caffeine protects coffee berries and beans from mycotoxin infestation. We also know that roasting helps decrease the amount of OTA---but it does not eliminate it.

The mycotoxins-in-coffee controversy has been growing since around 2000 when researchers started to publish their fndings. Widely different approaches to analytical batch testing have made it difficult to determine how much OTA is present and whether it exceeds regulatory guidelines.

After years of being maligned, coffee has undergone an image revolution. Instead of being publicly linked with breast cancer, pancreatic cancer and various types of psychological disorders, coffee has now been established as beneficial for many different organ systems.

However, recognition of coffee as something other than a helpful vice is relatively new. Historically, coffee has gotten a bad rap. At various times, coffee has been associated with cancer, infertility, “neurasthenia”, miscarriage, and heart attacks. In one memorable editorial published in Science Magazine in 1890, a researcher suggested that people who drank large amounts of coffee suffered from widespread bodily inflammation, had an intense aversion to work of any kind, and could die if denied coffee.

So the pendulum has swung from negative to positive in terms of the public perception of coffee, but the issue of mycotoxins and OTA is far from resolved. Researchers continue to refine OTA testing techniques while coffee growers and others involved in the business seek to optimize conditions to decrease the level of OTA in coffee---since it will most likely never be completely eliminated from the global coffee supply.  

On the upside, all of the positive research on coffee shows that benefits related to coffee consumption exist despite the problem of OTA contamination.  In fact, drinking coffee is associated with a decreased risk of liver cancer, AD and Parkinson’s disease---the three things that researchers have targeted as potential outcomes of OTA exposure.

You can be sure that at least some of the coffee you consume has traces of OTA, but you can also be sure that coffee is being more aggressively tested by regulators worldwide, and that coffee growers and others in the business are taking measures to decrease the threat of naturally occurring toxins in our beloved brew. 


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