Sometimes, it happens. You’re not paying attention and you pick up a hunk of cheese or slice of bread, pop it into your mouth and notice that it tastes funny. On closer inspection of the rest of the food on your plate, you discover the telltale signs of mold, either a fuzzy outer covering, or greenish or blackish spots.
At this point, most people fight the gag reflex and stop eating, wondering if their momentary lapse of attention is going to cause them to get sick. It’s not hard to understand why. Stories like this one, where dozens of people fill ill after eating yogurt contaminated with mold, make the headlines often enough to keep the issue on everyone’s mind, or at least close enough to the surface that it’s never far from your thoughts.
The good news, however, is that incidental exposure of the type described above are generally not harmful to you. Think about it this way: Mold spores are EVERYWHERE in the world we live in. Every day, you unknowingly breath in thousands of airborne spores just by going about your routine, day-to-day business, and the overwhelming majority of the time, those stray spores do absolutely nothing to you.
What really makes the difference here is the intensity of the exposure. If, after noticing that the first slice of bread you ate “tasted funny,” you spotted the mold on the rest of the loaf, then continued to eat the whole thing, sure. That would probably make you sick, but come on – who would do that?
There are exceptions to this, obviously. If you’re allergic to a certain species of mold, and you wind up ingesting some, yes, you’ll probably have a reaction to it that may include runny nose, sneezing, coughing, and perhaps swelling or irritable bowels. Likewise, if your immune system is already compromised, then pretty much any foreign body is going to have an adverse effect on your health, mold included, so there is some cause for concern, but not really much cause for alarm, unless you fall into one of the categories mentioned above that would make you more susceptible to mold spores in general.
It’s also important to note that some foods rely on moldiness for flavor. This is especially true of certain cheeses, so there are times when a small amount of mold will actually enhance the flavor and/or be good for you.
One thing you should NOT do if you find moldy food is sniff it. Let me repeat that to make sure you got it. Do NOT sniff mold, especially don’t take a deep breath of mold! All that’s going to do is draw mold spores into your nasal cavity. If you’ve already eaten a small amount of moldy food, you’ve just doubled your exposure, and again, it’s not that eating a small amount will hurt you, but the more intense your exposure to the spores, the more likely you are to feel some effects from it.
When you find moldy food, the best thing you can do is wrap it in paper or plastic and dispose of it outside your home (usually in the trash bin you roll to the road for weekly pickup, or dispose of it with no wrapping in a compost pile if you have one). You’ll also want to carefully check the other foods that the moldy food may have come in contact with, to make sure the colony hasn’t spread to multiple food items. That’s likely, because mold spores can turn pretty much anything into a food source, so check carefully!
Of course, in some cases, ingesting mold can impact you in more ways than you might have been expecting. Take, for example, the fungus Claviceps purpurea. It infects rye and other cereals, and has roughly the same impact on humans that LSD does. Throughout history, ingestion of this fungus has led to periods of madness, chaos and mayhem, that sometimes engulfed whole towns in Medieval Europe, which makes sense because most of the people living in a town back in those days would have gotten their bread from a single source. If the baker was using infected ingredients, most of the town would logically wind up impacted. It is thought that the madness ingesting this fungus brings about was directly responsible for the Salem Witch trials – young girls eating infected bread, then behaving strangely, leading the townsfolk to conclude they had been possessed by demons.
In general though, nothing is going to happen to you if you accidentally eat a small amount of moldy food, catch yourself, and stop, unless you’re already predisposed to be more sensitive to such things. If you DO notice any symptoms, however, see your doctor immediately! Better safe than sorry.