How Dangerous Is Eating Cheese With Mold On It?

Do you really need to throw that whole block of Parmesan away, or can you avoid the waste?

March 22, 2016
moldy cheese
gertjan hooijer/shutterstock

The Situation
You bought a really nice wedge of Parmesan or another Artisanal Cheese that you've been meaning to dig into all week, but when you finally pull it from the fridge and get ready to grate it over your pasta, you see it: Fuzzy, greenish-blue spots of mold have sprouted all over your expensive cheese.

What You're Worried About
You definitely don't want to chuck the whole thing in the trash. But is it safe to cut off the moldy part and eat the rest?

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The Very Worst That Could Happen
In rare cases, some molds produce toxins that can make you extremely sick—one of these toxins is even linked to liver cancer.

Related: Banish These 12 Household Toxins From Your House

But first, let's back up a little. The most important thing to know when it comes to the health dangers of mold is the type of food you find it on, whether it's cheese, bread, meat, fruits, or veggies. With hard foods like Parmesan, carrots, and salami, it's totally safe to remove the moldy area and keep eating. But with soft foods like Brie, bread, or grapes, you should toss the entire thing in the trash. (Here are the best clean eating cheese snacks for cheese lovers.)

"Think of mold as a weed," says Susan Whittier, PhD, director of the clinical microbiology service at New York Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center. "Even though you pull it out, it still has roots and it's just going to grow back." In other words, even if you can't see it, mold spreads through soft foods like grapes, spoiling the whole batch even if you remove the fuzzy spots. But dense, hard foods like Parmesan are safe, since mold can't penetrate and spread.  

Related: 6 Surprising Foods That Can Make You Seriously Sick

If you do end up accidentally eating mold, though, the results can be serious. In many people, inhaling mold while chewing can lead to respiratory problems and allergic reactions, Whittier says. And in the worst, worst case scenario, you could eat a mold that's producing a poisonous substance called a mycotoxin, most commonly found in grains and nuts. There are different types of mycotoxins and symptoms can vary, but the World Health Organization reports that consumption or exposure can cause vomiting, diarrhea, dizziness, abdominal pain, internal bleeding, and more. One type of mycotoxin called aflatoxin is even a potent carcinogen linked to liver cancer. 

 

Finally, mold sometimes (but not always) indicates the presence of bacteria that can cause food poisoning. (Here's how your food gets contaminated.)

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What Will Probably Happen
Most likely, nothing. After all, we've all probably eaten a slice of bread from a slightly moldy loaf and come out on the other side. And of course, the molds used to make cheeses like gorgonzola are totally safe. 

The bottom line is that not all molds are harmful, but experts say it's just not worth taking the chance, especially if you have a compromised immune system. If you see mold on any soft food, even if it's just a tiny spot, assume the whole thing is contaminated, put it in a bag (to prevent the release of mold spores), and throw it into the trash. And don't sniff it to see if it's "good:" Inhaling spores can trigger those allergic reactions and respiratory issues.  

But if you see mold on a hard cheese or other dense food, cut at least 1 inch around the entire mold spot, Whittier says. (But don't scrape it off, which can release mold spores.) Then store the food in a new container or plastic wrap, since the previous one might still have mold growing inside it. 

For more info on mold and specific foods, check out this detailed guide from the USDA.

 

This article originally published on Eat Clean.