One of the most common types of fungi found in households, mold can grow on paper, wood, various foods and even on some building materials. Basically, if there is moisture or water, mold can grow.
And there are plenty of types of fungi you may encounter; in fact, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimates that there are more than 300,000 subspecies of fungi in the world. That’s also why the mold that appears on a cookie is different than the one growing on meat.
But what happens if you do eat this microorganism? How dangerous is it to our health? Our post covers everything you need to know about mold.
First things first, though…
What is mold?
Both mold and bacteria can be dangerous for your health – but there’s a difference. For example, molds grow in complex, multi-cellular structures that are visible to the human eye; bacteria, on the other hand, is a hidden threat that can only be seen when using a microscope.
Robert Gravani, professor and director of the National Good Agricultural Practices Program in NYC, explains that molds develop root threads deeply anchored into the food they grow on. These roots grow spores, which is the part of the mold we actually see; spores can come in a wide range of forms and colors – and they also encourage transmission from one item to another.
Gravani likes to describe molds as the nature’s decomposers – and they’re highly efficient too! As long as it has proper environment, this type of fungi can decompose pretty much anything.
A warm, humid atmosphere creates the ideal habitat for mold.
But here’s the catch: just because you keep foods in your refrigerator, it doesn’t mean mold can’t grow there too! What’s even worse, you may end up eating certain foods with mold without even knowing!
The good and the bad mold
Perhaps one of the most surprising things I’ve learned about mold is that it’s not entirely bad! Actually, certain types of mold can be extremely beneficial to our health.
Ever heard of penicillin? This antibiotic is literally made from a type of mold named Penicillium!
Additionally, certain hard cheeses are also made from mold – and some of them are extremely expensive as they’re considered to be a delicacy by some cultures.
Now, back to the bad types of mold.
Mold as an allergen
Some people can develop allergies to mold; however, such reactions appear to the mold found in the environment rather than the one growing on foods.
Those who are suffering from such allergies can experience headaches, vomiting or even diarrhea. It’s usually easy to detect the allergen depending on the places you visit (for example, old buildings or basements).
Note that mold can also lurk in different areas of your home, especially if the building where you live is more than a couple of years old.
Elena Ivanina, gastroenterologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in NYC, points out that if you have an underlying health condition that affects the immune system, you may experience more severe reactions to such mold than a healthy individual.
Some molds are poisonous
Although some molds found in the environment can cause unpleasant allergic reactions, other types of fungi can be literally life threatening.
Some molds, such as the ones produced by the Aspergillus species, can cause aflatoxicosis. This rare condition is basically acute poisoning that can damage your liver severely and requires immediate medical assistance.
As much as I’d like to tell you that this type of mold is rarely found, it’s actually much closer than you think. Such molds can lurk in cereals, oilseeds (think sunflower or cotton seeds), spices and even tree nuts.
Furthermore, some of these toxic molds can even cause liver cancer in humans and there is already scientific proof that they do cause cancer in animals.
So how can we stay safe with mold everywhere around us? Here are some basic rules to follow in terms of foods.
How to avoid mold in foods
Even when they notice mold on a certain foods, some people simply cut off that part and eat the rest of the product. However, Gravani says that it’s just not worth the health risk.
Aside from the obvious risk of allergy or other reactions, moldy foods also have a different taste – and it’s usually not a good one.
ATTENTION! The U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends you to never sniff a food with mold to check whether it really has mold. If that type of mold could cause adverse reactions, you might end up with severe respiratory issues that require immediate medical assistance.
Any cheese that have molds as part of the manufacturing process is usually safe to consume. When it comes to cheese mold that appears on other cheeses, there are different rules depending on how it’s processed:
- Hard cheeses can be consumed if you cut off more than one inch around and below the moldy part. Once you cut off that certain piece, make sure to wash the knife thoroughly to avoid spreading the mold on other foods. However, if more than half of the cheese is encrusted with mold, it’s best to discard it altogether.
- Soft cheeses such as cream cheese, cottage cheese or crumbled/sliced/shredded cheese must be thrown out. Unfortunately, this type of cheese creates the ideal environment for mold which may grow way below the surface; the combination of mold and soft cheese also makes the perfect environment for bacteria that may cause digestive issues.
Fruits and veggies
Much like cheese, fruits and vegetables also have different rules in terms of mold depending on their texture:
- Soft produce such as cucumbers, peaches and tomatoes can’t be saved once they start developing mold. Even if you wash away the spores on the surface, mold roots have most likely run very deep into the fruit or vegetable, so it’s best to simply toss it out.
- Firm produce still have a chance if you cut off the part where mold has grown. Because they have a low moisture content, fruits and veggies such as cabbage, carrots or bell peppers make it more difficult for mold to grow deep roots.
Here are the general rules for other types of foods commonly found in our fridge:
- Luncheon meats. If your hot dogs, bacon or other similar meats have mold, throw them away without even thinking twice! Aside from the mold itself, such foods can also grow bacteria which affects your digestive system.
- Cooked casseroles/leftovers. Once again, if you notice even a little mold on such foods, it’s best to throw them away. By the time you notice the mold, it has more than likely grown deep roots that cannot be eliminated.
- Yogurt and sour cream. When you notice mold on this surface, it almost certainly contains bacteria too. The solution? Get rid of the product immediately!
- Jams and jellies. It might be very tempting to scoop the mold off these products and eat the rest; however, this type of foods can develop a mycotoxin that causes severe adverse reactions.
- Bread and bakery products. According to Dr. Ivanina, the easiest answer is to throw away these products as well. That’s because mold can spread incredibly fast and grow deep roots on foods such as breads, muffins or cakes.
How to avoid mold
If you’re keeping a certain food for months in your fridge, there’s not much you can do to avoid mold. The best practice is to eat any food while it’s fresh, shortly after purchasing it from the grocery store.
When serving foods, it’s ideal to keep it covered to prevent exposure to mold that might lurk in the air. Before putting the food away, cover it in plastic foil to avoid any harmful exposure.
If you have canned food leftovers, make sure to remove the food from the can as soon as possible and move it to a clean container. Refrigerate as soon as possible to avoid any risk of mold forming.
As a final rule of thumb, Gravani adds:
“Toss out the food when you spot mould as it will travel and invade the rest of your food, too.”
Looking for more useful content? Try one of our posts right here: