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.