Ochratoxin A in Food: What Are the Risks?

We're going to tell you about the risks associated with the consumption of ochratoxin A, a very dangerous contaminant for the body found in certain products, such as coffee.
Ochratoxin A in Food: What Are the Risks?
Saúl Sánchez Arias

Written and verified by the nutritionist Saúl Sánchez Arias.

Last update: 25 August, 2022

Ochratoxin A is a mycotoxin produced by several types of fungi, and which is harmful to our bodies. Contamination with this substance is possible through consuming unsanitized food, with legumes, coffee, nuts, and cocoa being the main vectors. In addition, it should be noted that it has been cataloged as a potential carcinogen for humans, so we need to avoid ingesting as much as possible.

Before starting, it’s necessary to emphasize the need to maintain good food hygiene practices to avoid alterations in the normal functioning of the physiology of the organism.

Otherwise, chronic and complex pathologies could develop over the years, which would significantly reduce well-being and health. Products that are marketed packaged usually undergo a series of controls to ensure the absence of these toxic compounds.

Where is ochratoxin A found?

Ochratoxin A is mainly found in foods, such as cereals, legumes, grapes, coffee, cocoa, nuts and spices. However, it has also been detected in animal products such as pork kidneys and liver. With regard to other foodstuffs, such as dairy products or meat, the risk seems to be very small, so there’s nothing to worry about.

Mouldy bread.
Ochratoxin A is a mycotoxin that affects some foods and is very dangerous to humans.

What must be clear is that ochratoxin A is a very stable molecule that isn’t destroyed at temperatures below 250 degrees Celsius (480 Fahrenheit), so heat alone won’t be enough to prevent the risk. In cases of bacterial contaminations , heat treatment is enough to eliminate the pathogen, but when it comes to toxins it can be different.

Ochratoxin health effects

Ochratoxin consumption is nephrotoxic; that is, it negatively affects kidney function. This is evidenced by research published in the journal Environmental Toxicology.

This compound is absorbed in the intestine and therefore quickly reaches the blood and body tissues. It is metabolized primarily in the liver and kidneys, but also in skeletal muscle. Metabolites will be excreted via the renal and hepatobiliary routes.

It has also been shown that this toxicant is particularly harmful to the central nervous system. According to a study published in the journal Toxicology Letters, it causes damage to mitochondria and calcium overload at an intracellular level, which can impair neuronal function. It is crucial to avoid intoxication, as it’s also cumulative over the years.

At the same time, it should be noted that ochratoxin A is teratogenic, i.e. it increases the risk of developing cancer. There are several research studies in this regard. It’s especially harmful at the testicular level, although many other tissues may experience alterations from exposure to the compound. The key is to maximize food hygiene behaviors to prevent consumption.

Ochratoxin A.
Toxins, such as ochratoxin A, can’t be removed by cooking.

What can be done to avoid the consumption of ochratoxin A?

One of the best tips to reduce the presence of toxins in the diet is to avoid eating foods of unknown origin. Normally, the products offered in the supermarket pass a series of quality and safety controls, so there would be no problem with them.

It’s a different matter when we talk about home-made foodstuffs, especially when they’re of vegetable origin. Contamination with fungi can occur and this can cause problems.

In any case, it must be clear that there’s always a maximum tolerable level of the substance before it becomes harmful to the body. Therefore, this doesn’t mean that a small amount of exposure will lead to cancer, although it is advisable to avoid ingestion as much as possible.

People belonging to risk groups, such as pregnant women and the elderly, should be especially careful. Any contamination would be magnified in them.

Ochratoxin A, a very dangerous toxin for health

As you have seen, ochratoxin A is a very dangerous toxin for human health, so it’s advisable to avoid exposure to it as far as possible. It’s produced by certain types of fungi and can be present in foods such as legumes or coffee. In this sense, hygienic practices should be respected and you should try not to eat foodstuffs whose origin is unknown.

Finally, it should be mentioned that if a water intoxication with this or any other dangerous substance is suspected, it’s best to consult a specialist promptly. Sometimes, there are certain antidotes to avoid the acute phase of the disease, which can also limit the risks in the medium term. It may even be useful to pump the stomach if the digestion process hasn’t yet been completed.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Song, Y., Liu, W., Zhao, Y., Zang, J., & Gao, H. (2021). Ochratoxin A induces human kidney tubular epithelial cell apoptosis through regulating lipid raft/PTEN/AKT signaling pathway. Environmental toxicology36(9), 1880–1885. https://doi.org/10.1002/tox.23308
  • Park, S., Lim, W., You, S., & Song, G. (2019). Ochratoxin A exerts neurotoxicity in human astrocytes through mitochondria-dependent apoptosis and intracellular calcium overload. Toxicology letters313, 42–49. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.toxlet.2019.05.021
  • Clark, H. A., & Snedeker, S. M. (2006). Ochratoxin a: its cancer risk and potential for exposure. Journal of toxicology and environmental health. Part B, Critical reviews9(3), 265–296. https://doi.org/10.1080/15287390500195570

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.