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Federal study finds toxins in baby food

June 6th, 2003

Federal study finds toxins in baby food. Experts differ on whether to alter youngsters' diets

Health Canada scientists have found that most cereal-based baby foods, usually the first solid meals given to infants, regularly contain multiple mycotoxins, potentially harmful moulds more often associated with sick building syndrome.

The department's Bureau of Chemical Safety is in the midst of a health hazard assessment of the findings of the study of infant cereals that tested 363 products -- including cereal mixes, teething biscuits and creamed corn -- bought in stores across Canada.

The tests even found ergot alkaloids, the fungus from which the hallucinogen LSD is derived.

"They are still examining the results in more detail but [Health Canada officials] did indicate to me that there is nothing that represents anything alarming from a health and safety standpoint in the data," said Margot Geduld, Health Canada spokeswoman.

"There is no reason for any recommended dietary changes based on the data at this point in time," she said.

Scientists, however, caution that mycotoxins have been linked to poor growth and development and suppressed immune systems in small children and should be eliminated from food at every avenue.

Mycotoxins are fungi and moulds that naturally grow on most grains.

"An accurate prediction of the possible health impact of individual mycotoxins in infant foods is difficult; possible additive or synergistic effects of multiple mycotoxins make the task far more complex," the study by Health Canada's scientists concludes. "The importance of using all measures aimed at minimizing the presence of mycotoxins in these foods is evident."

Mycotoxin specialists said much research still needs to be done on the health effects of the toxins. "You don't want to put weaning children on to food that have mycotoxins in them, wherever possible. You want to avoid that," said Dr. Kitty Cardwell, national program leader of plant pathology for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, in Washington, D.C.

Dr. Cardwell said the reason scientists began to measure mycotoxins in foods was "because many of them are pretty strong cancer-causing agents. As long as we know about them, we try to remove them from our diet."

Dr. J. David Miller, professor of chemistry at Carleton University in Ottawa and former head of the mycotoxin program at Agriculture Canada, said the extensive testing and evaluation of baby food by Health Canada is important because mycotoxins cannot be eliminated from the grain supply.

"We are worried about these toxins in food, for sure," said Dr. Miller, a leading expert on mycotoxins. "It is one of the things that is really important to monitor for because, unlike bacterial food poisoning, which... makes you really sick today, they have long-term effects from chronic exposure.

"It is one of the reasons why Health Canada and the [U.S. Food and Drug Administration] are pretty scrupulous about keeping their finger on these things."

The study, headed by Gary Lombaert, the natural toxins specialist for Health Canada, is the largest of its kind. The commercial products were bought at grocery stores from every major Canadian city from 1997 to 1999 to ensure a wide net was cast.

"The survey clearly demonstrated the regular presence of low levels of mycotoxins in cereal-based infant foods. In addition, many samples contained multiple mycotoxins," says the study, published last week in Food Additives and Contaminants, a scientific journal.

Mr. Lombaert said, however, that while the number of products found to contain the mycotoxins was high, the levels of the toxins were fairly low. A prime tenet of toxicology is that it is the dose that makes the poison.

The study found soy-based cereals were most likely to contain the various toxins tested for, while rice-based cereals contained the least contamination by a wide margin.

Soy cereals regularly contained four mycotoxins and all samples contained at least one of the toxins. Mr. Lombaert said this is likely due to the presence of some corn in most soy-based cereals. More than 70% of multi-grain cereals contained at least one of the toxins, also likely attributable to corn.

Almost 60% of the barley-based products tested were found to contain a toxin, and 56% were found to contain ergot alkaloids, the fungus associated with LSD. Only one sample of rice product was found to contains toxins. Most wheat-based teething biscuits -- 74% of the 24 samples -- also contain a mycotoxin.

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