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Toxins in wheat that causes vomiting becoming more common

A research team suggests this is being driven by climate change and changes to farming.

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people, leisure and food concept - close up man eating pasta for dinner at restaurant or home
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By Gwyn Wright via SWNS

Harmful toxins found in wheat that cause a stomach bug and vomiting in humans are becoming more common across Europe, warns a new study.

Scientists say the staple crop is “under growing attack” from fungal toxins that cause the ravaging disease Fusarium Head Blight.

Researchers estimate around 70 percent of wheat intended for human consumption in Britain is contaminated with one of these, called vomitoxin.

Half of such wheat in Europe is also infected with it.

The amount of fungal toxins, called mycotoxins when they are grouped together, found in wheat is on the rise in Mediterranean regions of the continent.

Outbreaks of it in 2018 and 2019 were bigger than any others during the period 2010-19.

Wheat infected with Fusarium Head Blight: a growing problem. (University of Bath via SWNS)

The team suggests this is being driven by climate change and changes to farming, such as soil preservation practices that provide a home for the Fusarium fungus.

Governments set legal limits on the amount of vomitoxin that can be safely consumed by humans, and 95 percent of food consumed in Europe meets those targets.

However, this still amounts to 75 million tonnes of food eaten between 2010 and 2019 having too much of it.

The team says their findings are “concerning” as the effects of eating fungal toxins on human health remain unknown.

When dangerous toxin levels breach a certain threshold, the contaminated grain is used in animal feed.

pasta, fresh salad and bread
(Chatham172 via Shutterstock)

This impacts cereal market prices, comes at a cost to farmers and shifts the health problem to our livestock.

The academics say “worryingly high” levels of vomitoxin are being consumed by farm animals.

Farmers spent more than three billion euros ($3,044,850,000 USD) downgrading wheat meant for Europeans to animal feed between 2010 and 2019.

They add that one-quarter of the food wheat containing vomitoxin was also found to contain other Fusarium toxins.

This is likely to be an underestimate because not all wheat is routinely tested for other toxins.

This means other potentially harmful toxins are likely to be slipping beneath the radar.

It is possible that these toxins interact synergistically with vomitoxin to have adverse health effects that are greater than one toxin working alone.

For the study, the team from the UK's University of Bath and the University of Exeter looked at the largest available datasets from governments and agribusiness which monitor the toxins.

By using data from across Europe, the team built the most complete picture yet of the threat and how it is changing.

Lead study author Dr. Neil Brown from the University of Bath said: “Contaminated crops and Fusarium toxins are always a worry, as they pose a significant threat to our health, especially as we only partially understand their effects on our wellbeing.

“But on top of these health concerns, we must remember that wheat is a hugely important global crop, so it’s essential for us to maintain high yields along with safe food production – not least because climate change, and now the war in Ukraine (the world’s fourth largest exporter of wheat), are already impacting on wheat yields and grain prices.

“Preventing toxin contaminations is therefore important both to help maintain the stable price of wheat and to protect our food security, ensuring global stability.

“There are real concerns that chronic dietary exposure to these mycotoxins impacts human health.

“We don’t understand the health implications of being exposed to multiple toxins at the same time, especially when that exposure is chronic.

“We’re worried about growing levels of co-contamination and possible synergies between toxins.

“We don’t know what’s causing the increase in Fusarium mycotoxins, which is why we need more research, but we suspect that changes in farming (such as soil preservation practices that provide a home for the Fusarium fungus) and climate change (such as warmer, more humid weather which favors the Fusarium fungus) are playing an important role.

“As mycotoxin outbreaks become more severe in the future with climate change, this issue is only going to become more important."

Study co-author Professor Dan Bebber from the University of Exeter added: “It’s vital that we have better systems to monitor how Fusarium Head Blight disease is changing in the field and to predict which environments are most at risk in the future.”

Professor Sarah Gurr, chair in Food Security at the University of Exeter said: “We need to be vigilant in testing for mycotoxins in grain. We each eat around 66kg of wheat flour per year – for example, in pasta and bread – and it’s important for wheat to be protected from Fusarium infection so as to mitigate this risk.”

Wheat provides around 18 percent of the calories in people’s diets globally.

The findings were published in the journal Nature Food.

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