Picture the scene; you’ve just made a sandwich packed with your favorite ingredients and taken a bite. But then you notice a few spots of fuzzy green mold on the bread. Fear then takes over, and you wonder what the fungus is doing to your insides. But what are the real implications of ingesting it by accident? Well, the answer might come as some surprise.
According to the United States Department of Agriculture’s Food and Safety Inspection Service (USDA), “Molds are microscopic fungi that live on plant or animal matter. No one knows how many species of [them] exist, but estimates range from tens of thousands to perhaps 300,000 or more.”
“Most [molds] are filamentous – threadlike – organisms and the production of spores is characteristic of fungi in general,” the organization continues on its website. “These spores can be transported by air, water or insects.” The best conditions for mold to grow are when its surroundings are humid and warm, and it can grow in any size or shape.
Mold on food items won’t always look the same, however; it can be dusty, furry, black, white, gray, green or yellow. Dr. Carla Gervasio – who specializes in Oriental medicine – told MSN Lifestyle that mold doesn’t just grow on food. It can be in the air, on the counter tops where we prepare our food, and even on the sponges we clean our dishes with.
As a rule, every food item we bring into our home is subject to spoiling, and mold is one manifestation of that. Of course, the length of time it takes for food to become inedible differs. This is why we split our food into three categories with regards to preservation: perishable, semi-perishable and non-perishable.
Perishable items such as meat, fish, fruit, milk, and some vegetables begin to spoil almost instantly, unless they are adequately stored. Semi-perishable things like eggs, carrots, potatoes, onions and beans can stay edible for several weeks if kept in a cool, dry pantry. Meanwhile, non-perishable items such as nuts, pulses and cereals can stay in good condition for much longer periods of time.
Food that has spoiled is generally not fit to be eaten by a human being. The product has experienced chemical and physical changes due to the heat, light, moisture and air factors it has been exposed to. Therefore, it these factors which have caused microorganisms to grow.
As part of the effort to make sure our food lasts longer before spoiling, many of our favorite grocery products have chemical preservatives added to them. These can help prolong the length of time a food item will stay in its best condition. But they can also help the food look fresher for longer.
There are many kinds of preservatives and they are used for specific purposes. Antioxidants such as butylated hydroxytoluene slow down the process of fatty, oily foods like margarine going rancid. Humectants, meanwhile, absorb the water in things like shredded coconut, which aids in keeping the moisture content consistent.
Antibiotics like tetracyclines combat the growth of dangerous bacteria in fish, chicken, and various canned items that could otherwise make someone sick. And, when it comes to mold, the preservatives used to curb its development are known as antimycotics. Examples include sorbic acid and sodium propionate, and these are added to fruit, cheese, and bread, as well as many fruit juices.
However, some preservatives used for aesthetic purposes have proved somewhat controversial. For example, sodium nitrate and simple nitrite are both used in meat curing. They help prevent the development of bacteria which could cause botulism – a condition of the nervous system. But they are also added because they make bacon and ham look more appetising by giving them the distinctive reddish pink coloring.
Some critics believe that our modern level of cleanliness and access to refrigeration makes adding preservatives to food unnecessary. But the food industry argues that the natural brown color of many cured meats, for instance, would deter people from buying, as it looks less tasty.
But in our everyday lives, how do we recognize a food item that has spoiled? Well, the first guideline is the expiry or sell by date on the packaging. If you have gone past the former, it’s recommended that you steer clear. However, sometimes items that haven’t passed this timeframe may have already gone bad, according to the website OneHowTo. A tell-tale sign here would be a change in color – like white bread becoming yellow or green vegetables going black.
If a food item has a foul odor or even if it just doesn’t smell the way it should, it may have begun to go bad and shouldn’t be eaten. The publication adds that if the surface of the food has become sticky or slimy, or has any kind of film over it, then it has likely spoiled. Likewise, if a fruit or vegetable has become blemished, wrinkled or unusually soft, it’s normally beyond saving.
Returning to our moldy sandwich, experts say that there’s usually no reason to worry if you eat such food by accident. Gastroenterologist Dr. Rudolph Bedford from Providence Saint John’s Health Center told Women’s Health in May 2020, “You’re not going to die from eating mold.” He claimed that as long as your immune system is in good working order, you should be capable of digesting mold like any other food item.
Bedford acknowledged that you may feel unwell after ingesting mold, but that is not due to any dangerous toxins contained in it. Rather, it’s because it tastes so horrid. He said, “The stomach is a harsh environment, so, for the most part, most bacteria and fungus won’t survive. It’s very uncommon that you’re going to get sick from mold.”
However, Bedford advised that if you do become ill after eating mold, give it some time to see if you suffer worse symptoms than simply some nausea. If it becomes more persistent and you are regularly vomiting, then you should contact your doctor. Dr Bedford would prescribe anti-nausea pills in this instance, or maybe a medication to clean out your digestive system by inducing diarrhea.
Bedford told Women’s Health that he has never encountered a patient in his 30 years of practice who has died from ingesting mold. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t people who are at a higher risk from mold than others. An allergic reaction to it can lead to respiratory problems for certain people, though again Bedford said these issues are very treatable and usually temporary.
New York City doctor of nursing practice and nurse practitioner Maria Yuabova went into more scientific detail with MSN Lifestyle. She told the publication in January 2020, “When the immune system works well, and healthy gut flora is abundant, molds will have no negative impact on the health and wellness of that individual.”
“In the case of people whose immune systems are weak, ingested fungal spores could cause more severe issues,” Yuabova went on. “When fungal invasion becomes systemic, the fungus can invade the digestive tract, upper respiratory tract, and brain. Those cases become more serious.” The website added that those who have allergies, asthma or a chronic condition of some sort should contact their doctor if they’ve eaten mold.
Symptoms of a bad reaction to the ingestion of mold can be similar to those of food poisoning, according to nutritionist Lisa Richards. She is the creator of the Candida Diet, which her webpage says is “a low-sugar, anti-inflammatory diet that promotes good gut health and eliminates the sugars that feed a candida overgrowth.” For reference, her advice focuses on balancing the bacteria in your gut.
Richards told MSN Lifestyle that it’s best to simply ride it out if you inadvertently eat some mold. She continued, “But if you notice gastrointestinal symptoms, it’s a good idea to add a probiotic into your health regimen and follow a fairly bland diet to help replenish the healthy bacteria in your gut.”
Meanwhile, the public’s reaction to moldy food varies. Some people see the bacteria on a piece of bread, cut it off, and eat the rest of the slice anyway. Others can see a single strawberry that’s gone moldy and throw out the entire packet. But which of these tactics is correct? Well, it depends entirely on the food in question.
The United States Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service (USDA) notes that mold has roots and branches which grow like threads and can penetrate deeply into food items. This means that, more often than not, the safest course of action is to avoid eating the moldy food entirely. But, if you really want to take the risk, some foods are safer to eat than others.
According to the USDA, harder foods such as some cheeses, vegetables, salami and firm fruits can be eaten even if they’ve become moldy. As long as you make sure to cut at least an inch around and below the mold, that patch can be removed, and the food eaten as normal. Ensure that the knife doesn’t touch the mould itself, to reduce the risk of spreading it, and the now mold-free food should be covered in new plastic wrap.
Softer foods such as bread, baked goods or soft fruits should be thrown out if any mold at all is discovered, Women’s Health says. Similarly, yogurt, canned goods, jams or uncooked meat and poultry which have gone moldy need to be discarded as well. These foods all contain a higher level of moisture and this makes it easier for the mold toxins to spread more thoroughly.
Elsewhere, some people believe that toasting bread can kill the mold bacteria on it. But the USDA says this could not be further from the truth. Bread is also extremely porous, which means that mold roots can take hold deeply. This makes bread one of the first things that should be thrown in the trash if you spot mold.
How can you stop your food from going moldy in the first place, though? Well, the storage of your food items is the key to this, according to the USDA. Firstly, you should always keep any perishable items in the refrigerator. Food should also be covered when it is being served served, or at the very least it should never be left uncovered for more than two hours. Finally, always be sure to maintain high standards of hygiene in your cupboards and fridge.
Frustratingly, mold can grow on food in almost any environment. It grows quickest in humid, warm places, but it is also perfectly capable of growing in colder climates too. This means putting something in the fridge won’t negate the risk of mold entirely; it will simply slow the process down.
There are some mold-limiting steps you can take when shopping for groceries, however. The USDA advises avoiding purchasing large amounts of food at once and also that you try not to buy any bruised produce. The organization gives the example of a discolored piece of fruit. Apparently, bruising is an indicator of a disruption to the cellular makeup of the product, and this leaves the door open for mold to grow.
Interestingly, mold can sometimes actually be beneficial for the human body, and some foods even have certain molds added in their production. According to Shisler’s Cheese House, brie, camembert, and a variety of blue cheeses have penicillium cultures added to them, which create blue-grey or dark blue veins within. Other molds used to grow cheese include P. candidum, roqueforti, P. and glaucum.
The aforementioned molds are apparently key to the unique texture and flavor of the cheeses. They eat the sugar and proteins in the milk used in curdling, Healthline reports, and this changes the chemical makeup of the cheese. The method of aging blue cheese then creates levels of density, acidity, moisture and oxygen flow that prevent the growth of the dangerous molds with harmful toxins.
Blue cheese also contains extremely high levels of sodium and is typically saltier than other forms of the dairy based product. But, if eaten in moderation, blue cheese can have incredible health benefits for the human body. For starters, it is less fatty and has more nutrients than other variants.
The Penicillium roqueforti mold used in the creation of blue cheese can help lower cholesterol. It does this by combatting the bad parasites and bacteria that can increase the level of cholesterol in the body. This fungus also obstructs the angiotensin-converting enzyme, the result of which is a better control of blood pressure.
The mold in blue cheese also works in an anti-inflammatory capacity – reducing the risk of diseases such as arthritis and inflammation of the bowel. According to Health Fuze, it can also contribute to the lowering of plaque levels in our arteries, which is good for the heart. There is also evidence that blue cheese mold can strengthen the immune system and combat sinus and food allergies.
Furthermore, blue cheese is brimming with minerals like potassium, phosphorus, calcium, zinc, magnesium, as well as vitamins A, D and B-12. Magnesium is great for reducing muscle stiffness. It, along with calcium, also strengthens bone density. Meanwhile, vitamin B-12 helps the nervous system and plays a big part in cell metabolism and the formation of red blood cells.
Health Fuze notes that in every ounce of blue cheese on average, there are six grams of protein. This means that it is a great source of healthy milk protein, which is integral to the growth of bones, cartilage, muscles, hair, skin and blood vessels. Blue cheese can also improve cognitive function by encouraging the regeneration of brain cells – making it ideal for the elderly and growing children.
Finally, if the penicillium used in blue cheese is ringing a bell in your head, that is likely because the word reminds you of penicillin. This is still one of the most commonly used antibiotics all over the world and it was, in fact, derived from the penicillium mold. Interestingly, Scottish bacteriologist Alexander Fleming unintentionally made the discovery in 1928.
Fleming found that the bacteria Staphylococcus aureus was prevented from growing in a culture he was preparing. His concoction had been accidentally contaminated by Penicillium notatum. Intrigued, he isolated the penicillium mold and cultivated it in fluid form. And he found that the results had the ability to kill many of the bacteria that commonly infect human beings.
Penicillin was purified by the late 1930s – thanks to British biochemist Ernst Boris Chain and the pathologist Howard Florey from Australia. In 1941 a form of the drug that was injectable into the human body became available. Penicillin is still used today to treat diseases such as meningitis and syphilis, as well as milder things like throat infections.