At home, it is not uncommon to forget a vegetable at the bottom of the vegetable drawer, or a cheese in the refrigerator door. They are then found covered with a fine gray-green down: mold. This is often the dilemma: can we clean or cut the damaged part and consume the aliment ordinarily, or is it better to throw everything out to avoid getting sick?
Mold refers to microscopic fungi that grow in multicellular or unicellular filament forms. Molds develop under the influence of air humidity, at a certain temperature and in low light, on dead plants and on deteriorating materials. The majority of molds would go almost unnoticed. When visible, which is not always the case, they usually take on the appearance of brown or black spots.
Molds can be found on all kinds of food (fruits, vegetables, dairy products, cakes …). To thrive, mold needs three factors: organic matter, water and oxygen. Food can provide it with the first two ingredients. If they are exposed to the air, then the mold will have all it needs to grow.
Tiny mold spores are suspended in the air. When these spores land on food, they take root there and grow to form spots of mold visible to the naked eye. Once these molds are mature, they will produce new spores, which will be released into the air, thus continuing the cycle.
Mold affects foods differently, depending on their composition and period of conservation. Most fragile items are meat, fish, fruit, milk, and some vegetables which begin to spoil almost instantly, unless they’re adequately stored. Semi-perishable things like eggs, carrots, potatoes and beans can stay intact for several weeks when conserved in a cold clean environment. Meanwhile, non-perishable items such as nuts, pulses and cereals can stay in good condition for much longer periods of time.
Spoiled foods are alternated in an obvious way. Mold changes the appearance of food, which can become soft and changes color, while the mold itself can be fluffy or have a dusty texture. Mold produces spores that give it its color, usually green, white, black or gray. Moldy foods also change chemically; they have a distinctive taste, much like damp earth. Likewise, they can smell weird.
What happens if you ingest a spoiled food? In general, there is no acute effect. Gastroenterologist Dr. Rudolph Bedford from Providence Saint John’s Health Center told Women’s Health in May 2020, that moldy food can be digested but hardly, and feeling unwell is due to the difficulty of digestion. If symptoms such as diarrhea and nausea persist, see a doctor. Mold doesn’t kill generally, but people with allergies may have respiratory reactions. Some molds also produce toxins, which are real natural poisons, called mycotoxins. Pierre Vlayen, professor of microbiology at the Paul Lambin Institute, says the consumer is not responsible for the presence of mycotoxins: the problem is upstream. Indeed, molds appear after the raw materials are harvested, when storage conditions are bad. So if you regularly eat contaminated products, toxins can accumulate in the body, specifies Pierre Vlayen. Some of these toxins are carcinogenic.
New York City doctor of nursing practice and nurse practitioner Maria Yuabova also stated for MSN Lifestyle in January 2020, that molds have no impact on a strong immune system. However, they can cause real issued for people having weak immune systems, with the fungus affecting the digestive tract, upper respiratory tract and brain.
People often tend to throw away spoiled food, which is the right thing to do according to The United States Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service (USDA), as mold has the particularity of spreading very quickly, thanks to the innumerable spores that it produces and its filaments that penetrate deeply into all the parts of the contaminated foods.
The decision also depends on the food’s type. According to the USDA, harder dry foods such as some cheeses, vegetables and firm fruits can be eaten even if they’ve become moldy, just make sure to cut at least an inch around and below the mold and remove it. Softer foods such as bread (its porosity allows the mold spread quicker), baked goods or soft fruits should be thrown out if any mold at all is discovered. Similarly, yogurt, canned goods, jams or uncooked meat and poultry which have gone moldy need to be discarded immediately as they all contain a higher level of moisture and this makes it easier for the mold toxins to spread more thoroughly.
To avoid mold, there are some indications you should stick to. Firstly, foods must be conserved in appropriate temperatures and dry places. Keep in mind that even in refrigerators, the cold slows down the growth of mold, but only for a while. The freshness of the product upon purchase also plays a role. If you want to consume foods well beyond the recommended shelf life, freezing is best. Maintaining good general hygiene at home also helps to preserve food better: washing the refrigerator regularly, washing your hands after shopping, and possibly wiping some packaged products before storing them. Basically, avoid buying large amounts of especially moist foods that go bad quickly. Also, avoid buying bruised fruits or vegetables, which are a favorite substrate for mold.
Finally, let us not forget that not all molds are bad news. Some of them are part of the manufacturing process of many food products, giving them particular textures, tastes or aromas: Penicillium camemberti for camembert and brie, Penicillium roqueforti for Roquefort and blue-veined cheeses in general (the “blues”), various strains of Aspergillus for soy sauce, Amylomyces rouxii for sake (Japanese rice alcohol), Botrytis cinerea for Sauternes wines, Fusarium venenatum for Quorn, etc.