Read before you eat!

By Jillian Kramer
Updated May 25, 2017
Jonathan Knowles / Getty

You purchased a pint of strawberries, but they got pushed the back of your fridge, hidden behind a gallon of skim milk, and by the time you unearthed them from the shelf, the bright red berries are spotted with white and blue. Your fruit isn't trying to be patriotic. It's molded—and it is not safe to eat, even if you cut around the spots.

This seems like a simple enough concept, but too many people eat molded foods for fear of wasting the money they spent on groceries. And, unfortunately, they can sometimes suffer severe consequences for doing so. "Most molds do not produce toxins that are harmful to humans," says Michael Doyle, Ph.D., regents professor of food microbiology at the University of Georgia, "but those toxins that are produced can have serious consequences, ranging from vomiting to gangrene to liver cancer."

Here's the thing: When it comes to mold, mycotoxins—poisonous substances that are produced by mold—are the real enemy. They're heat stable, which means they can't be cooked out of your food. (And they often dive deeper than the white, blue, or black spores you see on the surface of your fruits, vegetables, dairy, and meat.)

Without some serious scientific equipment, it's pretty impossible for the average consumer to determine whether the mold on their food contains mycotoxins—and that's why "it is prudent to not eat moldy food, with the exception of those foods in which safe molds have been purposefully added or unintentionally contaminated to make specialty foods such as blue cheese, brie cheese, hard salami, and dry-cured country ham," explains Doyle. You can, however, still eat many cheeses that have grown mold but didn't come that way from the store. "Remove at least one inch of the cheese from the moldy area to cut away any potentially toxic locations," he says.

Even if molded foods don't contain mycotoxins, "mold growth is an indication that food is spoiling, resulting in the presence of a variety of off-flavors and off-odors," says Doyle, which doesn't exactly make for a very pleasant dining experience. "The rule of thumb is, when in doubt about the safety of a food, throw it out," Doyle says. "This includes moldy bread, grains, left-over food, and even jams and jellies."

Unfortunately, molded food is a problem we could increasingly face, Doyle says. That's because, in the past, many food manufacturers added preservatives that prevented or retarded the growth of molds. But as consumers' preservative-free demand increases and companies change their preservative policies in response, "mold spoilage will undoubtedly become more prevalent, resulting in increased food waste," Doyle predicts. "We'll no longer be able to keep many beverages and deli meats in the fridge for many weeks without antimicrobial preservatives."

The best we can do, then, is try to prevent mold from forming in the first place—and luckily, we can do more to prevent mold growth than gobble up the content of our fridge as fast as possible. As Doyle points out, "molds like to grow in areas that are high in moisture, such as unkempt refrigerators." The simple act of cleaning your fridge periodically—think: once a month at minimum—can reduce mold growth. Keeping foods in the fridge in the first place should also reduce mold growth, as "molds grow especially well in warm, moist environments," Doyle says.