The mold found on food, whether it’s green or blue, hairy or fuzzy, has a distinctive appearance and smell. In most cases, you know you’ve got a problem the second you see it.
Some people (not me!) will just cut away the mold and eat the rest. As you’ll see if you keep reading, this may not be such a good idea.
But the outbreaks of mold that aren’t so obvious can also do a lot of health damage, such as cases where mold grows behind wallpaper or under carpet. Here’s the scoop. . .
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Mold is a type of fungus that grows in the form of multicellular filaments. There are thousands of known mold species, all of which require moisture for growth. Most types of mold, once exposed, have a dusty texture that’s easily brushed into the air.
Those dust-like bits are asexual spores called conidia, and they form at the ends of hyphae, which make for a long, branching structure—similar to plant roots underground. It’s this tendril-like branching system that makes it possible for mold to spread within a food or other growth media. (This is one of the reasons it can be risky to cut mold off a food such as cheese and consume the part that still looks okay to eat. The reality is, you never know how far the mold has spread.)
Mold spores on the surface, the conidia I mentioned, also spread easily. Picking up a moldy object such as a fruit can knock those spores throughout the surrounding air, and quite often into your nose or mouth.
Mold helps natural materials biodegrade, but that’s really just a fancy way of saying mold causes foods to spoil, change color, taste bad, and smell bad. Some types of mold can even damage property by spurring organic material like wood to decompose.
Granted, not all mold is bad. Mold can be very useful in specific areas of food science. Certain cheeses and sausages use “starter cultures” of mold to ramp up flavor. Mold is also useful in biotechnology. Many of the statin cholesterol-lowering drugs on the market are derived from molds.
But in general, mold is something you want to avoid. Contact with mold or ingestion of any kind can make you sick in various ways. Plus, some diseases stem from mold. And in some cases, even cancer.
The silent health threat that permeates air and buildings
Multiple health risks come about as a result of mold exposure. For example, mycotoxins, which are toxic substances produced by mold, are more toxic than heavy metals in terms of concentration. These toxic bits can ravage your body if they make their way inside, because fungi are able to “hide” from your immune system thanks to their ability to mutate fast.
And while they do that, they produce chemicals that actually suppress your immune system. Mycotoxins can also cross the blood-brain barrier straight into your brain, which is another reason they’re considered so toxic. This could lead to anything from mold-induced sinusitis to serious brain complications.
Molds are also known to cause allergic reactions and respiratory problems such as infections and bronchitis. When it comes to mold growing indoors, such as mycotoxins growing behind wallpaper or under your flooring, you could be susceptible to anything from nasal and sinus congestion to sore throat, headache, asthma, or skin and eye irritation. Young children and the elderly are at greatest risk.
Certain types of mold, like the kind that grow on peanuts, pistachios, and corn, produce a deadly carcinogenic toxin. This toxin, called aflatoxin, is the largest risk factor for liver cancer.
Aflatoxin is linked to as many as 28 percent of liver cancer cases around the world. According to research from Michigan State University that appeared in the December 2014 issue of Nature magazine, as many as 155,000 cases of liver cancer each year are a result of aflatoxin exposure. Most of these cases occur in developing countries, for example in sub-Saharan Africa and parts of Central America where hepatitis B vaccinations are uncommon (if a liver is compromised by hepatitis B, it becomes more susceptible to liver cancer).
There’s no question that eating foods containing aflatoxin is a cause of cancer. But when it comes to inhaling aflatoxins, the research isn’t so clear. There’s also no obvious way to solve the problem.
Working to better fertilize and irrigate crops might help mitigate the problem, since stressed plants tend to be more vulnerable when it comes to growing mold. Another approach suggested by the Michigan State University research team is for at-risk people to follow a more traditional diet, preferably one that’s heavy in essential amino acids and health compounds that can wipe out toxins in the body, and aflatoxin in particular.
Treat mold like the health risk it is
A few years ago, mold expert Dr. Jack Thrasher went on record saying as many as 40 percent of American schools and 25 percent of homes have mold problems. So it’s easy to see why this problem could reach red alert levels. Everyone is at risk for toxic mold exposure, and it doesn’t matter where you live, how much money you make, or how fancy your house is. Mold does not discriminate.
So rather than just treat mold like a superficial pest, take it seriously. Steer clear of anything that may have been compromised by fungus. Check the underside of jar lids on things like pasta sauce or salsa to make sure there aren’t any hairy blue-green patches. And use common sense. If your food doesn’t look quite normal, and especially if it appears moisture-soaked, toss it.
The only exceptions to my mold-avoidance advice are hard-block cheeses like cheddar, parmesan, or Swiss. Mold can’t penetrate very far into those foods, so cut away an inch of cheese all the way around a moldy spot and you should be fine. Don’t ever try to scrape the mold off, since that can release mold spores into the air around you. And never sniff moldy food – you could inhale mold spores.
There’s a great deal more to say about this subject, and you may want to check out the references below.