The moldy truth about leftovers and food safety
May 1, 2018
I do not waste food and am chagrined watching my daughter’s family throw out expensive organic fruit and vegetables forgotten in the back of their refrigerator.
Today, I tossed $4 worth of my favorite low fat organic yogurt because I noticed clumps of green mold floating on the surface. In spite of the mold, I would have eaten the yogurt, having carefully spooned out visible green fuzz, rinsed it the down the sink, then poured the remainder through a strainer, discarding many smaller green colonies.
At the point of returning the yogurt to the refrigerator, doubt stopped me cold.
“Should I eat this?” I asked myself.
Nope. Not according to Sabrina Stierwalt, PhD, who writes “Everyday Einstein” for ScientificAmerican.com. She describes tens of thousands of species of colorful mold growing on eatable surfaces. What I couldn’t see in my yogurt were the “stalks,” which “extend much deeper into the food and even have a root or branch system [harboring] invisible and potentially harmful bacteria.”
We know that molds which produce Roquefort, Gorgonzola, and cover Brie cheeses are safe to eat. But my yogurt, and other foods with high moisture content, can be invisibly contaminated below the surface, causing allergic responses which could lead to respiratory problems.
More serious gastrointestinal upsets come from mycotoxins, a poisonous substance produced by mold. People might experience nausea, vomiting, drowsiness, convulsions — even blindness and paralysis. Mycotoxins are found in grain and nut crops, but could be in grape juice and on celery, apples and other produce.
The USDA, in an article, “Molds on Food: Are they Dangerous?” quotes the Food and Agriculture Organization – which estimates that 25 percent of the world’s food crops are affected by mycotoxins, of which the most notorious are “a atoxins.” A atoxin is a cancer-causing poison produced by certain fungi in or on foods and feeds, especially in field corn and peanuts. Now I understand why friends have warned me away from my beloved peanut butter.
They are probably the best known and most intensively researched in the world – one of the greatest current challenges to world food production.
Leaving the alarm bells behind, the truth is that 100,000 species of mold are everywhere and everyone ingests them, usually without incident. The important takeaway from my reading is how to protect ourselves from eating visible or invisible mold spores.
1. Do not smell food with mold growth. Avoid taking spores into your respiratory track.
2. Mold can grow in the refrigerator. Wipe down the inside monthly with a tablespoon of baking soda in a quart of water. Clean rubber door gaskets or anywhere with visible black mold using three teaspoons of bleach in a quart of water.
3. Don’t leave perishables out of the refrigerator more than three hours.
4. Discard meats, casseroles, grains and pasta, soft cheese, yogurt, jams and jellies with visible mold. Discard bread and baked goods, peanut butter, legumes and nuts. All these can have mold growth below the surface, as can soft fruits and vegetables such as peaches and tomatoes.
5. Cut an inch around mold spots in firm fruits and vegetables such as cabbage, carrots and bell peppers.
Now for real-life practices: my mom, who lived to be 98, picked off the moldy spots of bread and ate it, no matter how loudly her children protested. We have a peach tree, and I’ve cut off the “bad parts” of peaches for years. English cucumbers sometimes mold on an end which I cut off, discard and slice the rest into the salad. Although I will change these practices, we’ve never fallen ill from my risky behavior.
I will continue to grieve about food waste. According to Dr. Stierwalt, we throw in the trash 30 percent of all of the food produced in the U.S. each year, worth $48.3 billion. That’s not just a waste of food, but of water, energy and land used to produce it.
Still, good thing I got rid of the yogurt. “Off with their heads” is not an effective way to kill mold spores.
Carrie Luger Slayback an award winning teacher and champion marathoner, shares personal experience and careful research. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.