Though concentrations of mycotoxins are low, the toxins themselves are widespread in the world of beer. And because they’re often stable organic molecules, mycotoxins are capable of surviving the heat of brewing and beer’s alcohol content. For that reason, scientists from the Laboratory of Organic Chemistry, Wageningen University, the Netherlands, published a report in the American Chemical Society’s Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry in early November chronicling their development of a portable sensor that determines the presence of mycotoxins in beer caused by fungal contamination to grains.
“At low concentrations, as far as we know now, there are no adverse effects,” explains Teris van Beek, PhD, one of the study’s authors, “However occasionally high concentrations of some mycotoxins have been detected in beer. Deoxynivalenol (Don) causes vomiting, and other mycotoxins can cause cancer or exhibit fairly acute toxicity.”
Dr. van Beek notes that mycotoxins are largely present in low concentrations, which means that most beer does not expose drinkers to an intolerable amount when it is consumed at average levels. Then again, with greater beer consumption comes increased threat of mycotoxin—alongside the threat the alcohol poses to the drinker’s liver.
Regardless of threat, Dr. van Beek says, it’s important to be informed about mycotoxin concentrations. “Not all beers contain equal amounts,” he explains. “Due to more extensive quality control, concentrations are likely to be lower in beers from large multinational breweries than in beers from small local breweries, or in home-made beers. The barley should be checked too!”
To date, the process of detecting and measuring mycotoxins has been quite expensive—both antibody-based and chromatography-based testing kits require substantial outlay, whether for expensive equipment or for investment, maintenance, and expertise. Dr. van Beek stresses that his team’s method has not yet been proven cheaper than existing methods, though he suspects that as the science of the testing develops and becomes picked up commercially, it may provide the capacity for cheaper detection than before.
“The technology is based on a novel type of surface plasmon resonance (SPR), which is an existing label-free technique that can sensitively measure the interactions between antibodies and antigens (such as mycotoxins) in real time,” Dr. van Beek explains. He notes that what makes his team’s work novel is that it is based on a nanostructured chip developed by the Italian company Plasmore, which participated in the project. “We have further developed and modified the chips, attached mycotoxins to the chips and tested them with beer. Due to the nanostructuring, the SPR apparatus can be 10 times smaller, 10 times less heavy, and 10 times cheaper than normal SPR instruments.”
The team has successfully used the chip to apply barley and finished beer, and though they have not yet completed testing on intermediate stages between the two, they expect it will work in those circumstances as well.
“In principle,” he says, “our method is generic and could be applied to any chemical for which antibodies are available, such as pollutants or drugs. The first application is not necessarily beer.”
He estimates that the science will take “a few more years” before it becomes commercially available.