Safe Consumption of Moldy Food: Separating Myths From Facts

Strawberries with mold growing on them.

Soft fruits like strawberries have to be thrown out when they get moldy, but it's not the case for all foods. (Image: Kalebkroetsch via Dreamstime)

Have you ever questioned the age-old advice to chuck out any food with even a trace of mold on it? Misconceptions about moldy food often lead to unnecessary food waste and confusion regarding food safety. In this article, we’re going to unravel the mysteries of food mold to foster more sustainable food consumption habits.

Mold unveiled

Let’s start by understanding what mold is. It’s a type of fungus that reproduces by producing spores, which can spread and contaminate various surfaces, including food. Thriving in damp and humid environments, mold usually appears as a fuzzy or powdery growth, and its color can range from green or black to white.

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Health risks of consuming moldy food

While the sight of mold might make you cringe, it’s not always as dangerous as you might think. Yes, some molds can produce toxins known as mycotoxins, but not all molds or mycotoxins are harmful. The health risks actually hinge on the type and amount of mold, as well as individual sensitivity. However, people with weakened immune systems are particularly susceptible to these effects.

Moldy food might make you cringe, but it's not always as dangerous as you might think.
While the sight of mold might make you cringe, it’s not always as dangerous as you might think. (Image: Lyudmila Makhova via Dreamstime)

Common misconceptions about removing mold from food

There’s a widely held belief that simply cutting off visible mold makes food safe to eat. However, this can lead to unsafe practices. Mold can penetrate deep into the food, so cutting off visible moldy areas may not remove all contamination. Similarly, toasting or heating moldy bread won’t destroy toxins or prevent further mold growth. Therefore, for the sake of food safety, it’s generally best to discard moldy food, especially if it’s soft or porous.

When is it safe to trim and eat moldy food?

It’s important to know that not all moldy foods need to be thrown away. There are a few instances where you can safely remove moldy parts and consume the rest:

  • Hard cheese: Firm cheeses like cheddar, Parmesan, or Swiss have a lower moisture content, making it difficult for mold to penetrate deep. Therefore, it’s generally safe to cut off at least an inch around and below the moldy spot on these cheeses.
  • Firm fruits and vegetables: Dense produce such as carrots, bell peppers, and cabbage can be saved by cutting off the moldy area at least one to two inches below and around the visible mold. However, if the mold has spread extensively or the food appears slimy, it’s best to discard it entirely.

When to discard moldy food?

Knowing which foods you should throw away is just as important. Here are some types of food where cutting off the mold won’t make them safe:

  • Soft fruits and vegetables: Foods like strawberries, raspberries, peaches, and tomatoes contain a lot of water and have a fragile structure, making it difficult to eliminate mold spores. The mold can penetrate deep into these items, so even if you remove the visible mold, they might still be unsafe for consumption.
  • Bread and baked goods: Mold on bread and other baked goods like muffins and pastries can have roots that spread deep into the product. Simply removing the moldy part won’t eliminate the spores that might have infiltrated the rest of the item.
  • Jams, jellies, and spreads: Mold on spreads can extend beyond the visible area. If mold is present on products like peanut butter or Nutella, it’s safer to discard them, as removing the visible mold might not eliminate the invisible spores.

The beneficial side of food molds

Not all molds are villains. In fact, some of them have useful roles in the culinary world and food production.

A cheese plate with Roquefort, Camembert, and Brie.
Cheeses like Roquefort, Camembert, and Brie depend on molds to develop their unique flavors. (Image: Palabra via Dreamstime)

They help shape distinctive tastes and textures in certain foods:

  • Cheese: Certain types of cheese, like blue cheese or Roquefort, owe their characteristic flavors and textures to specific mold strains, such as Penicillium roqueforti, introduced during the cheese-making process.
  • Fermented foods: Molds are integral to the production of various fermented foods. In traditional processes, molds contribute to the fermentation of soybeans in soy sauce, tempeh, and miso.

The verdict: Safe or unsafe moldy food

Distinguishing safe from unsafe moldy food is crucial. Hard and semi-hard foods, such as firm cheese or firm fruits and vegetables, can be made safe by cutting away a generous margin around the moldy area. However, mold growth on soft and porous foods, like bread or soft fruits, is more concerning, as the mold can penetrate deeper. Discarding these moldy foods is generally recommended to avoid potential health risks. Recognizing this distinction helps individuals make informed decisions about food safety and minimizes excessive food waste.

Mold on food isn’t a simple issue. It’s a blend of understanding food safety, recognizing the type of mold, and appreciating the role of mold in the food system. Armed with this knowledge, you can debunk food mold myths, make safer food choices, and reduce food waste.

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