Moldy food facts: a little mold can’t hurt you – or can it?

It’s that time of year when a bounty of local produce at a farmer’s market can be mighty tempting indeed.  While upping your fruit and vegetable purchases is certainly a smart nutritional move, how often in your quest for healthy eating have you simply bought too much produce?

The result can be an excess of  berries, tomatoes  or peaches that  develop white fuzzy beards.  But even if you exhibit restraint,  purchasing just the right amounts of various fruits and vegetables,  be sure to treat them with TLC. Bruised produce can go moldy at a much faster pace.  Then you’ve not only wasted your food dollars but you may be compromising your health as well.

Certain molds produce toxic substances called mycotoxins which have been connected to an increase in certain cancers,  even when ingested  only in small  quantities but consistently over  a number of years.   In some foods, particularly soft ones, these mycotoxins can seep through the entire food. In larger amounts, they can quickly lead to serious illness, such as in the case of moldy grain being fed to animals.

Generally if a fruit or vegetable is soft or liquidy and has mold on its surface, such as the furry peach or tomato, then throw it out as there are likely mycotoxins present.

Aflatoxin is a particular mycotoxin  found that has been studied extensively and as a result of its link to ill effects including an increased risk for liver cancer, there are  regulations in North America surrounding inspection of susceptible foods like peanuts. Commercial peanut butters, for example, are inspected for aflatoxin but if you are grinding your own – either at a store or at home, be sure to discard moldy peanuts as they can be a source of aflatoxin. Store natural nut butters in the refrigerator to reduce the likelihood of mold. And when you’re just munching on peanuts, keep your eyes open for moldy ones as well.

Other soft foods should be tossed as well. How many times have you scraped mold off the top of a container of a liquid-type food such as cottage cheese or yogurt? A recent case in the U.S., involving Chobani yogurt and more than 200 consumers who had symptoms of nausea, diarrhea and vomiting, showed that some strains of mold may cause acute symptoms as well.

Storage of whole grain products like breads and cereals is also a concern. While they’re chock full of nutrients including fibre and assorted phytochemicals, they usually don’t have as long a shelf life as refined grains. For those items like breads  that are preservative free, be on the lookout for mold around the “Best before Date”.

Or if you purchase a loaf knowing that it won’t be used right away, pop it into the freezer, being sure to put a dated label on it. (Labels are handy and help to take the mystery out of when you put items into the freezer.) While storing bread in the refrigerator will help to guard against mold, refrigerator temperatures also hasten the formation of certain starch components that rob the bread of a fresh texture.  If you spy any signs of mold on the product, pitch out the entire package.

To find out about recommended storage times for various food items, the Canadian Partnership for Consumer Food Safety Education, which  consists of industry, consumer and government organizations,  offers a variety of resources about foodborne illnesses. Download a food storage guide for easy reference.

A Pitcher’s Guide

Here’s  a pitcher’s guide with examples of what you should toss and what you can cut.  Generally  soft fruits and vegetables along with fluid-type  foods should be discarded while the mold can be cut off from hard produce or   items like hard cheese.  With these foods, it’s advised to cut an extra an inch off  from beside the mold for safe measure.

But when in doubt, throw it out.

Cut                                                                                    Toss

Broccoli                                                                        Bananas
Carrots                                                                          Berries
Cauliflower                                                             lll l   Cucumbers
Onions                                                                          Melons
Potatoes                                                                     Peaches
Hard cheeses like Parmesan                         lll   ll  Tomatoes
l                    l                             lllllllllll               llll Soft cheeses like brie or cottage
l                    l                             lllllllllll               llll Yogurt
l                    l                             lllllllllll               llll Jams and Jellies
l                    l                             lllllllllll               llll Nuts
l                    l                             lllllllllll               llll Bread products


What’s your practice when it comes to moldy foods? Please share in the comment section below.

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Categories: Food Safety

Author:Rosie Schwartz

Rosie Schwartz is a Toronto-based consulting dietitian and writer.

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