The Dangers of Food Mold

Scientists are not sure how many kinds of mold exist, but there may be hundreds of thousands of species in existence.

Molds are microscopic fungi that live on plant and animal matter. The fungi are carried by the air, water or by insects. When mold is present on food, you can usually see surface mold. However, it is difficult to tell just by looking whether the mold has spread toxins throughout the food. There may be mold deep within the food as well as on the surface. It is important to know which foods to toss out and which are still safe to eat.

The risks of food mold

Many foods that have mold growing on them should be discarded, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Mold can cause respiratory problems, so you should never sniff a food to see if it smells "okay." You might also have an allergic reaction to the mold that is on food. Although most molds are not poisonous, a few of them can make you sick.

Grains, nuts, celery, grape juice, apples and other produce sometimes contain poisonous substances caused by molds that are called mycotoxins. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations estimates that 25 percent of the food grown is affected by mycotoxins. One of these is aflatoxin, which is found in corn and peanuts. Aflatoxin is known to cause cancer and a variety of diseases in animals and humans around the globe.

Field corn and peanuts are monitored by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the USDA. When crops are affected by aflatoxin, they are removed. Occasionally, peanut butter and peanut products are contaminated and pass through testing anyway. When enough people become sick, the peanut butter is then recalled and pulled from grocery store shelves.

Prevent poisoning from food mold

One way to prevent molds from growing on your food is to keep your refrigerator clean and mold-free. Many molds grow on refrigerated food, although they often thrive in warmer temperatures. Foods in the refrigerator should always be kept covered to prevent mold spores from spreading to other foods. The FDA recommends cleaning your refrigerator with baking soda and water every few months. Black mold that sometimes grows on rubber casings should be cleaned with bleach solution. In addition, any sponge, dishcloth, or mop that smells musty should be laundered because these items contain mold.

Most foods with visible mold on the surface should be thrown away. These include hot dogs, lunch meat, bacon, leftover meat and poultry, casseroles, cooked pasta or grains. Some cheeses, such as cottage cheese, cream cheese and all kinds of shredded or sliced cheese that is moldy should be discarded. Yogurt, sour cream, jam, and jelly should also be discarded. Scientists warn that scraping off the mold may not eliminate the problem since the mold may have produced a mycotoxin in the remaining food.

Which foods are safe to keep?

The FDA recommends using fruits and vegetables that have mold growing on the surface, but only if they are firm. It is important to cut off the mold without allowing the knife to touch it. Then, cut at least one inch below where the mold was found. Soft cheeses, and soft fruits and vegetables, such as peaches and tomatoes, should be thrown out. Bread, baked goods, peanut butter, legumes and nuts also need to be tossed in the garbage. It is safe to keep hard salami and dry-cured country hams, but scrub all of the mold off of the surface before eating. Hard cheeses can also be eaten, but cut off the mold and at least one inch around the area that was moldy.

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