Recently, a friend called me disappointedly and told me that she discovered mould on her beloved marmalade that she had ordered online. I resonated with her, there have been so many times when I was waiting to eat something and then found it covered with mould before I ever got a chance to eat it. I’ve also had to throw out large loaves of bread when I find them with repulsive greenish-white spots but I’ve always wondered what would happen if I accidentally ate it? Or just removed the moulded piece and tried to salvage the rest of the food item? Is it safe to eat moulded food?
Last week, employees of a popular breakfast spot, Sqirl in LA alleged that the eatery was using jam with an inches-thick layer of mould growing on it and serving it to oblivious customers. They had a picture of a “discarded jam mould bucket” to corroborate their claims. Here’s the gross picture!
Apart from their lack of concern for hygiene protocols, some pertinent questions come to mind - how did nobody fall sick from the moulded food and how did it operate without any complaints? Isn’t mould dangerous for consumption? The answer may not be that straightforward.
Some moulded foods are toxic, others can be safe
A food scientist and certified food safety professional at State Food Safety, Janilyn Hutchings tells the Mic about what makes moulds poisonous, “Some moulds create mycotoxins that are poisonous to people.” She says that the worst possible outcome of consuming mycotoxins is food poisoning. “But the worst of these is aflatoxin, which has been shown to cause cancer,” she says.
She tells the Mic that finding mould on one food can be a less serious problem than finding mould on another. For example, finding a patch of mould on a sturdy vegetable may be less of a problem than finding it on a hotdog, meaning you can remove the patch of mould from the sturdy vegetable and eat it, but you can’t do the same for a softer food like a hotdog. This raises the question- why can only certain foods be reused after removing the mouldy part? Does the spread of moulds depend on how hard or soft a food item is?
Dr Rupali Datta, a nutritionist explains, "Certain hard foods like carrots, capsicum etc. and hard cheeses - can be reused after cutting off the mouldy portion. The toxins cannot penetrate stiff structures. Make sure the knife does not touch the mould and you cut at least an inch away from the mould.” she tells NDTV Food. But this isn’t applicable to softer foods, she continues, “Foods with high moisture content can be contaminated below the surface, which may not be even visible."
She also advises to not cook foods with moulds in a last-ditch effort to salvage them as moulds are heat-resistant and will not be destroyed by heat. So, no matter how much you wanted to eat that pasta, the best option is to toss it away.
The good moulded foods that are safe to eat
Not all moulds are harmful to us, certain types of moulded food are safe to eat and you may have even already consumed them if you’ve eaten Blue Cheese. It is known to be made by ‘safe moulds’ which are used in its manufacturing process; other cheeses like Roquefort, Gorgonzola and Brie also go through this manufacturing process. According to Smithsonian Magazine, without the mould, Brie would be a sour and rubbery cheese, but the fungus is what allows the cheese to take on its signature soft, creamy texture.
There’s another delicacy - huitlacoche or corn smut which infects the kernels and causes round, dark grey tumour-like bulges to grow on the corn. In South America, this fungus has a cultural significance, as huitlacoche in Mayan dialect means ‘excrement of the gods’ and it is considered as a delicacy. It’s often used an ingredient in Mesoamerican cuisine or as filling for quesadillas.
However, if you do find yourself in the kitchen staring at a mouldy spot for too long, on the fence on whether it’s edible, a wiser choice would be to toss it away and order takeout; better safe than sorry!