Will eating mould make you sick?
You’re enjoying your breakfast when you notice that your banana muffin seems to have grown a patch of fuzzy green dots. You have already taken a bite or two. Now, you wonder, what happens if you eat mould?
First, don’t panic. Most healthy people can accidentally eat some mould here and there and feel totally fine. A lot depends on the type of food (after all, some foods, like gorgonzola, and other blue cheeses are made with mould cultures) and on your underlying health status, like your immune system. Here’s a brief explanation of mouldy foods you can eat – and which ones to avoid.
What are moulds?
Moulds are microscopic fungi that can grow on wood, paper, carpet, food and building materials, such as insulation. All moulds need water or moisture to grow. Wherever there is moisture and oxygen, mould can grow.
There are many species of fungi, with some estimates suggesting 300,000 or more, according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). This is why the mould that pops up on your breakfast muffin may look different than the furry layer that grows on your luncheon meats, explains gastroenterologist Elena Ivanina. Unlike bacteria, moulds grow in structures that contain many cells, and you don’t need a microscope to see them. In general, moulds consist of root threads that run deep into food, a stalk that rises above the food, and spores at the end of the stalks. Spores give mould its variety of colours and also help transport it from item to item.
“If you pick up a dandelion and blow on it, the seeds disperse in the air, and that’s how mould spores travel from place to place, contaminate products and cause spoilage,” says Robert Gravani, professor and director of the National Good Agricultural Practices Program.
“Moulds are nature’s decomposers. If you have a piece of fruit with mould, eventually that fruit will be decomposed,” says Gravani. “Moulds are very efficient in what they do.” In fact, some can be very beneficial. The life-saving antibiotic penicillin is made from Penicillium mould, Dr Ivanina notes.
Mould thrives in warm, humid environments, but that doesn’t mean it can’t also form and grow in your refrigerator. Moulds are pretty smart, too, and tolerate preservatives such as salt and sugar better than most other food invaders. “They are pretty hearty critters,” Gravani says.
Allergic reactions to mould
Some people are allergic to mould, says Dr Ivanina. This is usually mould in the environment as opposed to food, but for these people, exposure to mould can cause vomiting, diarrhoea or headaches. If your doctor suspects a mould allergy is to blame, you will likely be referred for testing, she says.
Hidden patches of mould can lurk in all different areas of your home and may make you sick.
“If you have an underlying health condition that affects your immune system, exposure to mould can be dangerous,” Dr Ivanina says. “You may have a much worse reaction to eating mould than someone else because you don’t have a healthy immune system to fight that reaction.”