Have you ever grabbed a loaf of bread, made a sandwich, and then discovered (while eating it) that the bread was moldy? Well, you’re not alone, but that probably doesn’t make you feel any better. It smells bad and it looks disgusting, so it’s natural to wonder if there are any ill health effects that come from accidentally eating mold.
Mold is tiny fungi and it isn’t exclusive to bread or baked goods — it can distressingly show up on just about anything, such as the fresh fruits and vegetables you forgot about, that package of sliced turkey you found in the back of your fridge the other day that you bought last February, or your leftovers from two weeks ago.
Some mold is obvious and apparent, but according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), it doesn’t always just show up on the surface of foods, and it’s not always the blue-green color you’re probably picturing in your head right now. Mold can be quite small, and it can also look like some harmless white fuzz on your food — it’s still mold, though, and there’s likely to be even more mold rooted deep inside your meal that you don’t always see until it’s too late.
So, you’ve eaten half of your hot dog and that last bite of the bun was moldy. Of course, you stop eating it and possibly spit out what’s left, but what really happens when you ingest this disgusting fungus?
The good news is that it’s usually immediately apparent that you’ve taken a bite of something bad, so you stop eating it ASAP. Ingesting a small amount of mold isn’t likely to cause you any harm. However, mold itself can trigger an allergic reaction in those who are susceptible, and certain molds produce poisonous substances (mycotoxins) that can make you sick. If the mold isn’t putting off toxins, you’ll probably just have a bad taste in your mouth. When you eat a bite of toxic mold, though, effects can vary. Symptoms can range from loss of appetite and loss of energy to a serious illness. In some cases, ingesting toxic mold can be fatal.
If your food is moldy, discard it within a plastic bag directly into your trash can. Resist the urge to sniff it because that can cause breathing issues (also, it’s smelly). Clean the area where you found your moldy food thoroughly. And if you experience any symptoms, even mild ones, it’s a good idea to get checked out.
The USDA does have a handy list, though, that outlines whether or not you can simply chop off the affected part and safely consume the rest of the food instead of wasting what looks like “perfectly good bread.” Here’s a breakdown of what you need to completely discard, and when you can simply chop off the moldy part — and how much to cut away.
Firm fruits and vegetables, like cabbage, bell peppers, and carrots can be preserved if you find mold. Their dense structure means that mold has a hard time penetrating further into the food. Cut at least 1 inch around and below the mold spot, and don’t pull your knife through the mold as it can contaminate everything else.
Hard cheese can also be preserved if you find mold. For hard cheese where mold is not part of the manufacturing process (meaning you’ve found a spot of mold randomly on your cheese), you can safely cut it off, again with at least a 1-inch margin between the mold and the rest of the food — but only on hard cheese.
Cheeses that are made with mold as part of the manufacturing process can be salvaged, but only if the cheese is hard, such as Gorgonzola or Stilton (keep that 1-inch margin in mind, cut it off, and you’ll be fine). Soft cheese, though, such as Brie or Camembert must be discarded, as mold can spread to other parts of the food.
Hard salami and dry-cured country hams can also be used if mold is present. It’s common for these products to have surface mold when purchased — just scrub the mold off the surface and it’s fine.
For everything else, including that entire loaf of bread you just bought before you noticed a spot of mold at the very end, you have to throw the whole thing away. Mold can spread through porous foods, such as bread, and foods with high moisture content, such as soft fruits and veggies, yogurt, sour cream, jams and jellies, luncheon meats, hot dogs, bacon, and basically all cooked leftovers, which can be contaminated below the surface.
If you’re not sure, though, just chuck it in the bin, because the old adage, “When in doubt, throw it out!” is sound advice.