Photographs: Getty Images; Collage: Gabe Conte
The girlies have moldy Stanley cups. People on TikTok thought they were eating frozen blueberry waffles and somehow wound up with a mouthful of mold. One girl eats a rogue moldy pepperoni, another moldy fruit. To date, upwards of 46 million views on the topic have shown that we have a morbid fascination with eating stuff we're not supposed to. Clearly, TikTok has highlighted that the world of moldy food is, uh, ripe with controversy, and all of the videos point to one question: What do you do if you wind up snacking on something that's past its prime?
First, don't panic. It may sound gross, but mold is all around us and can end up on food much easier than you may think. It doesn’t just happen when you let a punnet of berries decay in the crisper (also known as the produce graveyard). Given the right elements to grow, mold will quickly spread on food. Martin Bucknavage, a certified food scientist and a Senior Food Safety Associate with the Penn State Department of Food Science, explains that mold is microscopic fungi that form thread-like structures called hyphae as well as spores.
Here’s what’s disturbing: Mold can live in all sorts of environments and spread really easily. “When molds are provided with the right conditions for growth, they do. They usually like warm, humid conditions and the right food source. Because molds are extremely adaptable, they can grow in cool environments as well,” says Jill Stuber, certified food scientist and co-founder of food safety consulting company Catalyst.
As you’ve likely seen firsthand, one common place mold can be found is decaying food. “Molds can be found anywhere and cause various degrees of food composition that we commonly refer to as spoilage,” Stuber says. She adds that molds can adapt to sugar, salt, and acid, so you may find them on foods like jams, jellies, ham, and bacon.
Are all molds bad?
Not all types of mold are bad. In fact, mold can be quite delicious—especially in the form of brie, gorgonzola, and Roquefort. Sometimes, we even need it: Penicillium mold is used to make the antibiotic penicillin. Stuber explains that just as there are good bacteria (like probiotics) and bad bacteria (like the kind that can make you sick), there are also good and bad molds.
Bucknavage says to think of it this way: If mold was purposely put in something (like cheese), you can safely assume it’s a good mold. But if the mold starts forming on its own, it’s best to put it in the “bad mold” category. “When there is unwanted growth, we will not know what type of mold it is, and we cannot take a chance guessing whether it is a good mold or not," he says. “Generally, it is not.”
What happens if you eat mold
You know that disturbing thought of mold being all around us? Guess what else—you’re likely eating more mold than you realize. Stuber says that most people eat mold on a regular basis. We don’t realize it since most mold is often too small to see. For the most part, she says nothing bad is going to happen by eating a little mold.
When you consume a large amount of mold, that’s when things get unpleasant, and you can expect to be holed up in the bathroom. “Our bodies are amazing at recognizing foreign substances, so one reaction may be vomiting,” Stuber says, reiterating that this is pretty rare because, most of the time, nothing happens from eating mold. Stuber does add that there have been reports of allergic reactions and respiratory problems because of mold, so some people can have a pretty intense reaction from it.
There are times when mold can do some serious damage to your body. Both experts explain that mold can produce toxic compounds called mycotoxins. Bucknavage says there are different types of mycotoxins that can be produced, depending on the species of mold. He adds that different species of mold have different requirements for growth, so the type of food will impact the type of mold that grows.
One of the most dangerous types of mycotoxin is aflatoxin. Ingesting mycotoxins, especially aflatoxins, is especially bad news for the liver and can do even more damage than your last trip to Vegas, according to scientific research. “Aflatoxins have a wide range of toxicities, including one of the most potent liver carcinogens,” Stuber says.
The types of foods that are most likely to contain mycotoxins include corn, grains, legumes, and spices. “That’s why farmers and food manufacturers follow good agricultural and manufacturing practices to prevent and minimize the growth of molds to prevent toxin production to have safe foods,” Stuber says.
Both experts say that mycotoxins are heat stable, which means you can’t cook moldy food and assume you’ll be okay. Neither expert recommends trying to wash the mold off or eating around it either. “You have to remember, what we see on the surface may not be all the mold that’s there,” Bucknavage says. So if you see mold, there’s only one place it belongs: the trash (or compost bin if you’re a better human than most).
When to see a doctor
It bears repeating that most of the time, eating mold isn’t going to mess up your body. So if you realize too late that you ate something with mold on it but you still feel fine, both food safety experts say you’re good to go about living your life.
But if that hunk of mold you ingested is causing you to experience any physical problems at all—including vomiting, diarrhea, respiratory problems, or any pain—it’s best to see a doctor. This is because of how much mycotoxins can mess up the body. When you go in, you can expect your doctor to run some blood tests to get an idea of how your liver is faring. If needed, you’ll be given medication to help the body clear out the mycotoxins.
“The best way to avoid moldy food is prevention,” Stuber says. “Inspect foods before you buy them or consume them. Clean your refrigerator routinely. Use clean towels, dishcloths, and supplies.” In other words, the kitchen is not the place to be a slob.
To recap: As with bacteria, there’s good mold and bad mold. Most of the time, bad mold isn’t going to do much, but when it’s bad, it’s bad. So don’t eat mold that wasn’t put there on purpose, and if you do eat mold by accident, see a doctor if it makes you puke (or makes your body revolt against you in any other way). And for the love of God, if you see mold on your food, throw it out. You don't want to be making a TikTok in the days to come.
Originally Appeared on GQ