The Ultimate Guide to Moldy Food—When to Eat It, When to Toss It, and How to Prevent It

Learn how to keep mold out of your fridge.

Everything we consume has an expiration date—from yogurt and vegetables to baked goods, and more. However, some of our pantry and fridge staples are more prone to mold production than others, creating a perplexing dilemma for those fighting against food waste.

After all, is it ever fine to eat moldy food? If so, what moldy foods are acceptable and which ones should be avoided? And what should we do to protect our health? We spoke with nutritionists and doctors to learn about the best ways to handle moldy food, and how we can prevent moldy food to begin with.

What Is Moldy Food?

When food becomes moldy, it's because a specific type of fungi has been given enough time to grow. Though it definitely isn't appetizing or pleasant, mold growth is normal and part of the food cycle. As celebrity chef and nutritionist Serena Poon explains, molding is a natural process in ecology that recycles foods and essentially turns them into compost. "There are mold spores everywhere, including in your home, and when they make their way into your food, they accelerate the process of decay," she says.

In food, mold can occur at any point in the supply chain, from harvest and storage to your pantry. According to Poon, mold thrives in moist environments, so it's often found in fruit and bread that's stored in warm, humid climates.

How Do You Know if Your Food Is Moldy?

As you inspect a questionable vegetable or piece of fruit, look for changes in its appearance. "When mold is present, food can become soft and turn darker, and the mold itself can look fluffy, fuzzy, or dusty," says Seema Sarin, MD, the director of lifestyle medicine at EHE Health. If you bite into the moldy food before analyzing it, you may notice a change in taste, too.

"Another easy way to detect mold is to pay attention to the packaging," Dr. Sarin adds. Is it cracking? Is there moisture under the wrapping? How about unusual stains? According to Sarin, these are all indications something's not quite right and that mold could be present in your food.

When Is it OK to Eat Moldy Food?

Poon says the general rule is that mold spreads more easily in soft foods such as bread, fruits, and soft cheeses, which is why you shouldn't just cut off the moldy portion and eat that food anyway. However, if you spot mold in harder foods, they might still be salvageable.

"Mold on your soft food has probably traveled much further than you can see," Poon explains. "Do not sniff the moldy areas or containers as mold can easily cause allergic and respiratory reactions." The only exception is the mold on certain cheeses, such as Gorgonzola, Roquefort, and Brie, which is considered safe to consume.

If you discover mold on a hard surface—such as hard cheese or vegetables—you can likely simply cut off the moldy part and enjoy the rest of the food. "Mold has difficulty spreading through more dense surfaces, so you can be fairly confident that you are not consuming mold spores in this situation," Poon points out.

To remove mold safely, Poon recommends cutting off at least an inch around the area and then washing your knife immediately. "Clean your refrigerator after discovering mold on food to avoid further spread through the air circulation inside your fridge," she adds.

And if you're in doubt? Throw it out. As Poon warns, mold can create dangerous mycotoxins and can cause allergies, as well as respiratory issues.

How Can You Prevent Moldy Food?

Since tossing out food contributes to food waste and costs hard-earned money, it's best to prevent your food from getting moldy in the first place. The most impactful way to prevent mold from appearing: Eat your food. It may seem like an obvious solution, but it's an effective one. When you only buy the food you will eat each week, you reduce the probability that mold will appear over time and cut back on the likelihood of waste. The goal should be to purchase fresh ingredients that you will use in your meals within a few days. One fun idea to hold yourself accountable is to create an "eat me first" shelf in your fridge. As Poon explains, this is a visual reminder of what needs to be eaten ASAP.

"Keep in mind that if you live in a humid climate, perishable items, like bread and baked goods, will mold more quickly. If you do notice mold on your food, toss it and take note so that you can adjust your upcoming shopping list," she adds.

Also, as Poon explains, mold spores can spread through the air, so it's important to keep much of your food in an environment that does not allow the air in. Store leftovers, jams, yogurts, and cheeses in airtight containers. You should also store bread in a bread box or the freezer to extend its lifespan. "One exception is fruit, which should be stored with access to airflow, but eaten quickly," she says.

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