How not to give your friends food poisoning: Part Two: Should that be green? Molds, mildews, and fungus

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(This is Part Two in a nine-part series on How Not To Give Your Friends (or Yourself) Food Poisoning and can also be found at Shine Foods)

In 1984, Barry Marshall grew a little H. pylori in his fridge, ate it, and went down in history for discovering that the source of stomach ulcers was bacterial.

I do not recommend this.

You can grow all kinds of interesting things in your fridge and food cabinets. Some foods, including the stinkier cheeses of the world, get flavor from mold cultures. Others, such as bread, should really not be green. 

That thin snowy layer on top of that old cup of coffee? The thin green film on your bread? The gray fur on that old, forgotten Indian food? Mold. Molds are microscopic fungi that live on the surfaces of plant and animal matter. They travel by releasing spores that are pretty much everywhere, and are usually harmless. However, some molds release toxins that can cause serious food poisoning and respiratory problems, and it is impossible to tell the innocuous from the dangerous by sight.

No matter what your dad or gross brothers were willing to eat out of the fridge, you should not just scrape off the mold and eat the parts that “look okay.” The mold that you see on the surface is actually just the spores from the mold. When mold colonizes a food, it sends long, thin roots that you can’t see deep down into its host. So even if the pretty colors have been scraped away, you could still be eating potentially poisonous toxins. 

There are a few exceptions:

  • Many cheeses, including Roquefort, blue, Gorgonzola, Stilton, Brie, and Camembert are created by intentionally introducing molds that are safe to eat.
  • Hard cheeses with surface mold can still be eaten if you cut off at least one inch below the growth. Mold roots generally cannot grow deeper than 1 inch below the spores on hard cheeses.

Molds and mildew may also form in damp areas of your kitchen – the bottom of your fridge, under the sink, and in the crisper. In extreme cases, touching and inhaling these growths can cause allergies, headaches, nausea, asthma, fatigue. Because molds release spores into the air that may settle on other foods even once you’ve cleaned out the offending items, you want to do your best to prevent those little fuzzy gardens from growing in the first place.

  • Clean the inside of the refrigerator every few months with 1 tbsp. of baking soda dissolved in a quart of water.
  • Scrub off any visible mold (usually black gunk) with bleach or vinegar (I recommend using the vinegar recipe found here, since many chemical mold killers contain chlorine bleach, which, when mixed with water, can form hydrochloric acid, which is fatal if swallowed and can cause chemical burns).
  • Keep sponges and dishrags clean – if they smell musty, you’re just spreading the mold around.
  • Keep foods in the fridge covered with plastic wrap or tinfoil.

If you have mold:

  • Wrap food items in a plastic bag and throw away immediately. I know there is a temptation to keep it around and see what happens, but, no.
  • DO NOT SNIFF THE  MOLDY FOOD. Why do people do this? Mold spores can cause serious respiratory problems, so sniffing the food is not a good idea. If you can see the mold, it’s bad, no matter what it smells like. You’re going to sniff it anyway, aren’t you? Fine. Just don’t say I didn’t warn you.
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