• What Are Ergot Alkaloids and Where Are They Found? — Chromatography Explores

What Are Ergot Alkaloids and Where Are They Found? — Chromatography Explores

Aug 23 2017 Read 1340 Times

A recent paper published online by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) considered the exposure of humans to ergot alkaloids and whether any safety risk was posed to humans. But, what are ergot alkaloids and can you eat them safely?

Beware the Cock’s spur

Ergot has probably been known about for several thousand years. They are a group of compounds that can infect many grass species, including cultivated grass species that we use to produce food. When a grass is infected, it usually manifests itself as a slightly larger, blackened ‘kernel’ — known as sclerotium — growing with the other kernels on the head of the plant. The blackened ear is formed by a hardened mass of fungal mycelium that contains the food stores of the fungus. They can remain dormant for long periods of time.

Fungal toxins

The sclerotium contains a fungal toxin — and the fungal infection that infects the grasses is known as ergot, with the ergot alkaloids being a major component of the toxins. When the sclerotia — ergots — were used in making bread the toxins entered the food chain. The condition resulting from the toxins was known as ergotism and was documented in both Roman times and the Middle Ages. There are reports of different types of ergotism, which seem to depend on the type of fungus or Claviceps that was found on the grass, but effects included gangrene and convulsions.

But ergot was also a medicine, being used to help induce childbirth in the 16th century until the end of the 19th century due to the adverse effects. However, in the 20th century some components of ergot were found to be effective in the treatment of migraines — the ergot alkaloid known as ergotamine.

Ergot alkaloids

In Europe, C. purpurea is the most widespread fungi and mainly found on rye and wheat — the ergot associated with gangrene. There are twelve main ergot alkaloids from C. purpurea that the EFSA scientists were interested in. The EFSA team used liquid chromatography with tandem mass spectrometry to analyse over 4000 food samples plus 650 animal feed samples. The analysis of contaminants in food is discussed in the article, How Safe is Safe? Analytical Tools for Tracing Contaminants in Food.

The team found ergot alkaloids were highest in rye and rye-containing products, and the twelve main alkaloids were found in most of the samples. However, the levels were very low and in line with a 2012 report, there is no health concerns for any groups including young children.


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