Coping With Vomitoxin In Wheat


From GENE LOGSDON

I’ve been eating home-baked bread from wheat flour slightly infected with vomitoxin.  I have not vomited, nor have I suffered any ill effects as far as I know. The bread tastes just as delicious as our non-vomitoxic  bread. I will try to explain and can only hope that you, gentle reader, will not think that this time I really have gone mad.

Agribusiness discourages the use of the word, vomitoxin, since it sounds more horrendous than the problem it causes, at least so far. The other term for it is “DON” which stands for a word so long it is hardly pronounceable and sounds even more forbidding than vomitoxin.

This spring, parts of the country, especially in the Midwest, experienced heavy rains right when the wheat plants were flowering and beginning to set on seed. Fusarium head blight struck. This fungal disease can carry vomitoxin.  Heads of wheat with the disease display whitish shrunken kernels or scabby empty husks of kernels. When the vomitoxin content gets really bad, the shrunken grains go from almost pure white to pinkish in hue and are referred to as “tombstones” in the trade. Agribusiness is discouraging the use of that word too, for obvious reasons.  There were no pinkish grains in any of the fields I walked in around here. In fact the wheat all looked quite healthy to me at harvest time.  Vomitoxin is not carcinogenic and hardly lethal in low amounts. Grain with low levels of it can throw livestock off feed or make humans sick to their stomach. There have been cases of gestating sows eating only vomitoxic grains aborting or getting ulcers, or so I read.

Now that I no longer raise my own wheat (old age knocketh at the door)  for our bread, I like to get it straight from the field, not after it has gone through the long process of being trucked to elevators where it is comingled with other wheat, and then shipped to processors. I am almost literally surrounded by wheat fields and kind farmers, so getting wheat straight from the combine is fairly easy. But to my dismay, much of the wheat in our area was infected with vomitoxin above the allowable rate for human consumption which is generally put at no higher than 2 parts per million.  (There is some confusion here because FDA’s limit for human consumption is 1 ppm, but that is on finished wheat products, not on raw grain.  The lower limit applies to the milling industry which can “substantially reduce” DON during processing.)

Wheat from fields where I selected the grain for our bread tested 4.6 ppm of vomitoxin.  Every sensible person I talked to said I should just throw it away.  But what if all the grain in the Midwest, or even half of it, tested too high for human consumption? Throwing it away without proof that it was truly toxic would hardly be a practical solution if that meant a bread shortage. I had another idea. Most of the wheat kernels infected with vomitoxin are very light and can easily be removed from small amounts of wheat by immersing the grain in water. The light, infected grains float off. Winnowing also removes some of the light grains. We always wash and winnow our grain before grinding it into flour anyway.  But, said the sensible people, some wheat berries that look healthy can still carry some vomitoxin in them. (And that is true.) Just throw it all way, Gene. Be sensible.

Gene is rarely sensible the way other people are sensible. I washed a bucket of this wheat, (all we needed since we have some left from last year), floating off the light kernels and washing off the field dust on the grain which can also carry vomitoxin. Then I spread the cleaned grain out on a sheet in the sun to dry quickly.  I had the wheat tested again at the local grain elevator. This time the vomitoxin count was 1.7, safe enough to eat. Whoopee.

Actually, I was a little disappointed that the wheat had come down to safe levels. I had made up my mind to make and eat bread from it anyway just to make a statement, as they say.  In fact, I had already been eating bread made from this wheat.  From the homework I had done, I don’t really think I’m crazy.  How many people really appreciate the paranoia that grips modern society over this business of parts per million?  One part per million equals one minute in two years. In terms of wheat, it equals one teensy, weensy little wheat berry in 80 pounds of wheat which is about one and a third bushels. All the discussions of vomitoxin that I read insisted that at low ppm levels, a human would have to ingest an enormous amount of bread to suffer any ill effects.

There’s another hitch in the problem. It is almost impossible to take samples of wheat, say, from a semi truck load, that accurately represent the true vomitoxin content of the whole load when one is trying to count tiny little parts per million.  Samplers are instructed to probe all parts of a load and blend the different samples thus obtained before testing. But grain handlers I talk to all say the method is fraught with inaccuracy. I’ve heard tales, which I can’t prove or disprove, of truckloads of wheat being turned down at ethanol plants because the vomitoxin content was above the limit imposed by FDA, 5ppm last I checked.  (The FDA gets involved because the spent grains after distilling are fed to animals.)  So the trucker drives around, gets back in line again, and, surprise, surprise, the next samplings give a test result below 5ppm.  I don’t see anything wrong with this kind of subterfuge either. The second test could be more accurate than the first.  We must, as a society, start using a little more common sense in how we interpret parts per million. I will bet anything that we are unknowingly eating lots of food that has in it materials toxic at high levels but not at extremely low parts per million or parts per billion. Iron in food is good for you at low levels but can kill you at high levels. I don’t mean to sound frivolous, but maybe vomitoxin has some advantages at low levels. It discourages appetite and so might be a way for the obese to loose weight.

I fear that a whole lot of wheat is going to get unnecessarily dumped, or at least a whole lot of farmers are going to get underpaid more than they should, simply because we now have the technology to measure extremely small amounts that are not necessarily significant.

Nor do I blame government officials for covering their asses by being as strict as they are. Heaven help the regulators if people got poisoned from bread, or even thought they got so poisoned.
~
(Time out for a commercial. From time to time readers ask where I will be attending public events. I will be at Jandy’s Garlic Festival  Celebration, Sunday, Aug. 15 from l:00 p.m. until you get tired of chewing me out for being lax on toxicity levels.  The address is 3624 Twp. Rd. 136, Bellefontaine, OH 43311 . Check www.localharvest.org and search Jandy’s for more info. )
~~

14 Comments

We got a couple of kittens this fall, so it was back to the litterbox routine again.

Instead of buying expensive store litter, I just went out in my garden. I’ve used about 75 sq. feet of dirt.

This morning I went back and turned the soil. In the first part, there was no evidence of cat poop and it smelled like good dirt. There were even some worms living there. I could go back to the beginning to reuse the dirt for the litter box.

I can’t wait to plant something there to see how it turns out.

Gershon

Very interesting piece, I had never heard of vomitoxin before. I just wanted to point out thing in the blog that could be a little misleading. In order to explain how small 1 part per million is, Gene cited the example of one wheat berry per 80 pounds of wheat. This does not mean, as I initially inferred, that if you had an 80 pound sample which contained 5 berries infected with vomitoxin, that your test result will be 5 ppm. This is because the infected berries themselves contain vomitoxin on the scale of parts per million. Even the tombstones are only contaminated to the tune of 100-300 ppm. Yes, ppm is very small, but certainly relevant biologically speaking.

Let’s say you have a truck load of wheat which consists of 99% healthy, vomitoxin free wheat, and 1% tombstones which contain 200 ppm of vomitoxin. Random samples should reveal 2 ppm, on average for the entire load (1% of 200, plus 99% of zero, equals 2). As this contrived example shows, one of one hundred berries are infected, not one out of every 80 pounds. Any reasonably sound sampling techniques would catch that level of contamination.

On the subject of random sampling, it would be in the buyer’s interest to have accurate testing procedures since, I assume, his milled products will be subject to FDA testing. Surely, he won’t be happy if his flour is rejected because he underestimated the amount of vomitoxin in the seller’s wheat due to poor sampling techniques.

My guess is there is probably some similar problem with beans, cabbage, tomatoes, potatoes and everything else in a kitchen garden. I figure variety will keep me from getting too much of any one toxin.

Most people die within a few years of the age their parents died assuming no accidents. For this reason, I bought both my parents exercise bikes and made sure they used them frequently. My mother kept exercising right to the end organizing wheelchair and walker races in the nursing home. She stayed perfectly healthy until she was 85. She would have laughed at anyone worried about vomitoxin. She even refused to refridgerate mayonnaise just to prove you didn’t need to.

Gene, as a long-time RN and herbalist, I have to say that Sarah is making a good point. Low level toxins in children and pregnant women, ingested over a period of time, can do some nasty things. The other thing is that no matter what we do, in the world as it’s currently operating, we are all exposed to toxins in our water, homes, food and air that we can’t do too much about. It’s like conventional prescription medications: the more of them you take and the longer you take them, the higher the odds of interactions, some of which can be downright deadly. So keep testing that wheat and watch closely for symptoms. You realize you are doing what humans did for thousands of years–empirical testing and observation “in vivo” rather than in some controlled lab. Personally, I think it makes good sense, I just wouldn’t use my grandkids as my initial test subjects.

Sarah, My 1.7 sample was a pint out of about six pints of washed, winnowed wheat, so I think it is fairly accurate. However, the only test I trust is my body. Eating this wheat has not affected my appetite or anything else as far as I can tell. Gene

Sampling is variable: true.

That means the vomitoxin content in your wheat is just as likely to be higher than the stated amount, as it is to be lower.

Just sayin’.

We just throw in the garlic festival as an extra. The real event is having you come visit for a book-signing! Yes, Freedom Farm is one of the vendors at our Farmers’ Market and they have blackberry BBQ sauce and it’s really good! We’ll have vendors with locally-made breads and other foods, soaps and lotions, honey … and, of course … lots of garlic! We’re cleaning it all now. We’re taste-testing so we can tell people what all the different varieties (9 in all not counting what Russ will bring) taste like. Will be a fun afternoon!

There is nothing fancy about my using them – I just threw some of our fresh berries in the blender with the garlic and onion and garden herbs as a natural sweetener. I make up a paste to take to the butcher to mix with the ground pork from the hog that we get done especially for the garlic festival. The folks from Freedom Farm ,who will be one of the the vendors at Jandy’s, is who you should really talk to about blackberries. They have been making a BBQ sauce using blackberry syrup from their own cooked down wild blackberries. It is pretty incredible.

Bless you Russ. I know how good those sandwiches are. I’ll trade you a book for one…or two. Now I am really curious though. Blackberry seasoning? I am just now writing about blackberries (the kind you eat). That seasoning has to be part of the essay. Gene

I was going to buy ~100 bu of wheat from my brother this year to have to feed to chickens and hogs as well as to grind some for flour and flake for cream of wheat. Part of the frustration of the harvest was that the test results were not available until several days after delivery. I ended up passing. Maybe I should have been a little more contrary like you. He ended up getting around $4/bu for his crop – no profit in that, especilly with yields down also.

I look forward to seeing you and Carol at Jandy’s. They are amazing people and have a beautiful garden farm. There is a rumor that all book signing authors and their lovely wives will be provided free whole hog sausage brat sandwiches seasoned with fresh garlic, onions and blackberries. I am pretty sure it’s true.

Gene, I do believe you are meddling, now! Your all too reasonable comments about sampling and the wide range of sampling variability in coming up with the sampled statistics might even discourage some sensible-minded citizens from putting too much faith in Gov’t statistics. How unpatriotic of you!

Of course the problem is that you have to be able to draw conclusions about a truckload of wheat without being able to do an actual census of the wheat grains (counting and testing every last one). So we have to resort to sampling. It’s the only method we have. And of course, for some contaminants/pollutants we can even measure at parts per billion!

An example I often have used in class: draw a chalk mark and say it measures 1/20 of an inch. Then 240 such marks will make up a foot and 1,267,000 such marks a mile. So 1 billion chalk marks will total 790 miles. Now imagine trying to measure 1 part per billion, that is, find one chalk mark in 790 miles! Mind-boggling.

5 ppm would mean trying to find 5 chalk marks in 4/5 of a mile. Still a daunting task. The key to statistical analysis, of course, is a truly random sampling, not half-baked or haphazard. And even then there is a substantial sampling variation which means that from a sample we can express only an (uncertain) probability that the load of wheat is contaminated. This all makes for difficult decisions. But of course the rules are set and the people who make these decisions are bureaucrats who do not want to use any discretion. But if the load of wheat WERE contaminated, would you really want to chance it? Difficult decisions.

Bottom line: living is dangerous. There are things that bite and things that claw and floods and tornadoes and sprained ankles and now vomitoxin. I bet it’s been around for years and all of a sudden it’s come to the awareness of a public official somewhere who wants to make political hay from “protecting the Ammurrican peeple” (I know, I’m a card-carrying cynic). Gene, what you are doing with your wheat makes darn good sense. The human animal is constructed to handle toxins, infectious agents and all sorts of other things that are out to get us. So far the race seems to have done pretty well in that respect. Which is not to say we can be stupid about toxins; mess with aconite, which is derived from the monkshood flower, and it will kill you very dead, very quickly. While I appreciate (some of) the activities of organizations such as the FDA, running around yelling that the sky is falling makes very little sense–far better to identify the problem, make suggestions for dealing with it, and let individuals make their own risk/benefit decisions. And by the way, I bet the reason that milling decreases the vomitoxin ppm level is that conventional milling also strips much of the nutrition out of the grain in the process. I figure it’s better to be well-nourished, which gives my body the best chance of dealing with anything nasty that’s out to get me.

I’m certainly in favor of knowing better than to panic at every “outbreak” that gets reported. I will however put in a word for respecting fungal toxins, even at “insignificant” parts per million.

There is a grand difference between acute toxicity, or outright poisoning from one big dose of something, and chronic ingestion of toxins at low levels. They’ll both mess you up, but the chronic toxicity takes so long to show up that in the meantime you think you’ve gotten away with it so you keep eating more of the stuff. You, Gene Logsdon, wisely recognize that you are old enough that the chronic toxicity is extremely unlikely to kill you before something else does. We could consider not having to worry about fungal toxins a luxury conferred by old age.

Do make more allowance for it with your grandkids though, or ladies who who are of the age to be playing landlord and nurse to the next generation.

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