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How To Identify Moldy Food and What To Do If You Consume Some

By: Riley Brown | Last updated: Nov 01, 2021

Molds and fungus come in many forms and thrive in tropical jungles, forests, and even in your refrigerator. They are everywhere. Not all of them pose a risk to you, but some certainly do. If you’ve ever been curious about how or why they pose a potential threat to your well-being, take a few minutes to read the following information.

We usually can’t see, smell, or taste the mold until visible signs of damage become obvious. Mold grows indoors and out, so noticing the early stages of its growth cycle is important. We’ve broken down the most important facts about molds below to help clarify exactly what they are and what sort of harm they can cause.

What is Mold?

Mold is found in places where moisture and oxygen are present. It can overgrow and spread fast due to how versatile it is in what it feeds off. It is a type of fungi that breaks down dead plants and animals. While not all of them are edible, there are some forms of mold that are surprisingly safe to eat.

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It’s not known precisely how many types of mold there are. However, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) says that mold comes in thousands of varieties. That’s why it’s pretty much inevitable to come up against it many times in your life. Mold can even make its way onto your dinner plate, so beware!

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Mold Transportation

Mold spores float around everywhere and can easily be breathed in and absorbed. Just because you can’t see it doesn’t mean it’s not there. It’s important to be aware of the symptoms of mold exposure. It’s equally important to prevent mold growth, so you can avoid the related health problems.

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It may seem gross, but as this post will outline, mold can really affect your health – sometimes without you even knowing! Of course, you don’t need to live in fear of the stuff. There are ways to avoid mold, things you can do to remove it, and warning signs that you should be aware of.

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What Mold Looks Like

If you store your food for too long, it could change its appearance – this is when mold becomes visible. Mold is usually white but can also be yellow, gray, green, or black. In an interview for Shape, Dr. Carla Gervasio (specialist in Oriental medicine) explained that mold spores can be found in many areas around the house.

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In homes, mold grows predominantly in damp areas that have been left undisturbed. For example, in the kitchen, they thrive on kitchen cabinets, countertops, sponges, and near the sink. Hence, it’s possible that you may unintentionally consume the spores when you eat your food.

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Mold on Food

Mold can be found anywhere in the home but is most often spotted on perishable foods. The longer you leave food out, the more likely it is to become spoiled. If you’re concerned about spotting mold, you must understand what percentage of your food is likely to be spoiled.

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As soon as you buy perishable and non-perishable products, be sure to label them and monitor their storage life. If there are any foods that have spoiled, remove them immediately. The sooner you can detect when your food is going bad, the easier it will be for you to eat everything in time.

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A Guide to Safe Food Storage

Meats, fish, fruits, milk, and some vegetables will begin to rot almost instantly. Other items, such as eggs, ginger, garlic, and onions, can last for many weeks if kept in a cool, dry spot. Meanwhile, nonperishable goods such as oats and nuts can last months if stored properly.

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The shelf life of your perishable items is associated with the kind of storage you have. If your goods are exposed to heat, humidity, or sunlight for too long, they will begin to spoil until they become inedible.

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Mold Can Cause Food Poisoning

Mold thrives in humid conditions, developing on foods like cheese and bread. Most of them are concealed within the food, so eating foods that sit for a long time is risky. Though there are harmless molds, some may cause mild food poisoning.

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When a food changes its appearance and smell, there’s a chance that toxins have spread deep within the food already. If you see mold on food that you’re about to eat, throw it away. After all, it’s much better to be safe than sorry.

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Preservatives Keep Food Fresh

Many ancient food preservation techniques are still used today. Certain ingredients are added to food products in small amounts to preserve them at their highest quality for a long time. In fact, many of our favorite goods are preserved with chemicals.

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There are two ways to preserve food: physically and chemically. Physical preservation involves drying and refrigerating. In the chemical method, additives like lemon juice, salt, and sugar are used to preserve the food. However, some big companies today use a variety of artificial preservatives in foods that are harmful to the body.

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Benefits and Disadvantages of Preservatives

Additives like sugar, vinegar, sodium nitrate, and salt kill food-decaying micro-organisms like mold and bacteria. A chemical called butylated hydroxyanisole is responsible for preventing fatty, oily foods from going rancid, while humectants help with moisture control.

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There are many benefits of packing food with additives. Some preserve the food’s taste, and others make it last longer. However, additives have a lot of health risks associated with them. They can cause cancer, asthma, and health problems. Natural products, though more expensive and sometimes less effective, are better for one’s health.

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Antibiotics for Preservation

There are special chemicals used for chicken, fish, and canned goods. Antibiotics are even used to kill dangerous bacteria in foods. For example, tetracycline is commonly utilized in the US poultry industry. However, its usage is being increasingly regulated due to health concerns. The same is true of other antibiotics and preservatives.

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Antimycotics like sorbic acid are used to prevent mold from growing in fruit juices and cheese. It is sprayed on the food’s exterior to prevent any mold growth while it is shipped across the country.

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Sodium Nitrates in Foods

Meat curing is a method of preserving food where it is treated with either salt or a mixture of salt and other ingredients such as sugar, nitrates, or nitrites. The salt makes the food too salty for most bacteria and mold to grow on.

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Sadly, these preservatives have been shown to cause health problems. For instance, sodium nitrate (which also provides a rich red color to ham and bacon) has been linked to some foodborne illnesses, particularly botulism, a disease of the nervous system.

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Demand for Replacement of Artificial Preservatives

Consumers are increasingly demanding foods and beverages to be free from artificial ingredients to fit into their lifestyles. They want new products to be based on natural ingredients. As people become more health-conscious, natural preservatives are now being tested to replace artificial ones.

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For hundreds of years, preservatives have been used to extend the shelf life of food, but critics believe that today’s high standards of cleanliness and technology render them unnecessary. In contrast, the food industry argues against this demand. They say that if they stopped using artificial preservatives, consumers would stop buying food due to its unappealing appearance.

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Identifying Spoiled Food

How can you tell if a food item has gone bad? In general, look at the expiration or sell-by date on the packaging. If it’s past that date, then it’s recommended that you don’t eat it. If the food is homemade or doesn’t have an expiration label, here’s what you should do.

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Discoloration and changes in texture are signs of spoilage. The smell is the most important sense in detecting spoiled food. However, even if there is no smell, the food may still be spoiled, so beware. Always trust your instincts!

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Spoiled Food Odor and Texture

Food spoilage has many odors, depending on the type of microbe and the food being spoiled. Some molds have a pleasant strawberry odor. However, other molds in decomposed foods smell musty, sour, or even fishy.

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Other than the smell, food that is slimy or sticky also indicates spoilage. With fruits and vegetables, once they become wrinkled, brown in color, and unusually soft, you should throw them away. Unfortunately, no amount of scrubbing and washing will be able to improve spoiled food.

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Dealing with Moldy Food

People use different tactics when deciding whether or not to eat food that has mold on it. Some of them cut off the moldy part of the food and eat the rest, while others throw out the entire food item when there is even the tiniest spot of mold on it.

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Remember, mold is a type of fungi that is found in bread and other foods. The danger inherent in mold is that it can multiply and spread. It can also cause food poisoning if someone consumes the food on which mold grows. Overall, cutting out the sections of moldy bread isn’t as effective as throwing out the entire loaf.

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Throw or Eat?

Why is it best to throw out every part of moldy food? Mold can spread quickly, and it can penetrate deeply into food items. It has roots, branches, and threads-like tendrils. Since the roots are not visible, it might be hard to know what part needs to be cut off.

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It’s not just a bad taste that you’re risking if you eat moldy food. It’s actually dangerous to your health. “If you can see a mold growing, there can be other microbes such as bacteria and yeast in the food as well. It’s really not worth making yourself sick,” an expert says.

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Moldy Foods You Can Still Eat

Certain foods can become moldy even if they contain preservatives. This doesn’t mean that they’re unsafe; it just means that you can’t eat the spot that has mold. For example, if you have a piece of salami with mold on it, just cut out the moldy parts.

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You can also apply this rule to hard vegetables and cheese. All you need to do is to cut at least an inch around and below the moldy part, making sure the knife does not touch the mold. Once you slice out the mold, the rest of the food should be safe to eat. 

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Foods You Must Throw Away When Moldy

On the other hand, soft fruits, bread, baked goods, yogurt, and soft cheeses that have been opened should be thrown out if any mold is seen at all. Why? There’s a deadly mold found in soft bread, which is known as Rhizopus stolonifer (also known as black bread mold).

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Foods with high moisture content, such as soft fruits, yogurt, and cheeses, have a higher risk of growing dangerous mold. Also, these foods have an even higher chance of invisible bacteria growing alongside the mold, which makes them unsafe to eat.

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Don’t Toast Moldy Bread

If you believe that toasting bread can kill mold, you’re dangerously mistaken. As we’ve talked about earlier, molds have roots that can go down deeply in bread. So, there’s a high chance that the moldy part was already contaminated and the toxins already spread throughout the whole loaf.

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Don’t think twice once you see black moldy spots in your bread – just throw it away! Your health is more important than being frugal with your food expenses. If you don’t want to waste money next time, make sure that you consume your food before the expiry date.

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Ways to Prevent Moldy Foods

To prevent mold from growing, you need to keep your fridge clean and remove any spoiled food immediately. When storing foods in the refrigerator, keep them covered and use leftovers within three days. Any open canned goods should be placed in a container and refrigerated immediately.

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Surprisingly, the fridge can actually offer the perfect environment for mold. Food kept in temperature-controlled environments or in dry, non-porous conditions is less likely to grow mold than food kept in moist areas, so adding paper towels or bicarb soda to absorb moisture in your fridge is a good idea.

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Your Fridge Can Only Keep Food Good for so Long

Mold can grow in any environment, even in the cold conditions offered by refrigerators. Mold does grow fastest in humid, warm places. However, it can handle the cold too. So, putting something in the fridge won’t stop the risk of mold – it will just keep food safe for a longer period.

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Since mold grows in almost all environments, removing rotten food immediately is the most effective way to prevent it. However, you can’t just throw away the moldy food and be done with it. Mold spores can spread through the air easily, so it would be best if you also cleaned the fridge thoroughly.

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Rethink Bulk Food Purchases

When shopping for groceries, avoid buying large amounts of food at once. This way, you can prevent the root of all spoiled and moldy foods in your home. Only buy the things you need for a couple of days or weeks. For example, never buy bulk loaves of bread or a large jar of jam.

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Also, try not to buy discolored produce. Bruise marks are the result of the fruits being left out too long. These discolored areas will cause mold to develop quickly. Buy firm and fresh fruits and vegetables.

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What Happens When You Accidentally Consume Mold?

In most cases, if you’re healthy and the mold is only in a few spots, it isn’t a big deal. You only have to worry about moldy food if it has been there for a long time and has started to release mycotoxins.

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Most strains of mold are harmless. However, if you have an allergy, chances are you’ll likely experience vomiting and nausea. Fortunately, most mold tastes bad, so before you consume it, there’s a chance that you’ll be able to spit it out.

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Low Chance of Feeling Sick

One expert says there’s a risk of developing a severe reaction to mold, but this is unlikely. Also, you’d have to consume large amounts of the mold before it made you sick. Who would eat that much food with mold on it? The truth here is that you probably won’t get sick from ingesting a bit of mold. 

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While it’s true that, in small doses, mold isn’t harmful. The mere fact that it tastes disgusting will result in some people feeling uncomfortable and upset about having consumed something that contains it.

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Vomiting and Nausea

If you do get sick from mold, the reaction may take time to manifest. If you vomit after eating mold-infested food, talk to your doctor. They’ll probably give you anti-nausea medication or something to help you safely rid yourself of the toxins.

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If you still feel a bit nauseated, a doctor might recommend medicine to induce diarrhea to help you flush out all the bad bacteria in your stomach. Although it’s unlikely that this will happen, it’s still best to know what to do.

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Allergic Reaction

People with allergies might experience temporary respiratory issues following exposure to certain molds. But don’t worry, these symptoms are usually temporary and can be treated by your doctor. You’re not likely to die or suffer from severe medical conditions because of mold.

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While it is true that no patients have died from mold-related illness, it can be dangerous, especially if you have a compromised immune system or are elderly. Though there are no deaths recorded from ingesting mold, that doesn’t mean it can’t happen. So, it’s better not to eat moldy foods.

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The State of Your Immune System Matters

New York City nurse Maria Yuabova also believes that most molds are harmless. She said, “When the immune system works well, and healthy gut flora is abundant, molds will have no negative impact on the health and wellness of that individual.” 

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What happens if you’re not in perfect health? If you have a weak immune system, mold can cause infections that affect the eyes, skin, lungs, and other organs. People who have weakened immunity should avoid mold exposure and take extra precautions to prevent mold-caused infections.

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Severe Cases

Let’s talk about the severe cases of mold infection. “When fungal invasion becomes systemic, the fungus can invade the digestive tract, upper respiratory tract, and brain. Those cases become more serious,” Yuabova added. There are also some which can produce mycotoxins. One of these mycotoxins, aflatoxin, can cause cancer, according to the USDA.

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Some people who have asthma can be triggered by mold allergies. It causes restricted breathing and other airway symptoms. Asthmatics, those with immune system problems, and persons with HIV who have eaten mold should contact their doctor.

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Symptoms Like Food Poisoning

Lisa Richards – a nutritionist and creator of the Candida diet – noted that a bad reaction to the ingestion of mold could be similar to food poisoning. It can cause unpleasant symptoms such as vomiting and diarrhea. Richards says this is because mold releases toxins that affect the body, similar to food poisoning.

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Thus, if you’re going to consume food that’s a little old, it’s important to absolutely guarantee that it is not contaminated with mold. If you don’t, then your chance of suffering from serious complications will be greater.

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Restoring Healthy Bacteria

If you unintentionally eat some mold, you’re likely to be okay. However, if you start experiencing symptoms in your stomach, you should add a probiotic to your routine and follow a very bland diet to help restore the healthy bacteria in your gut.

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Molds that have released mycotoxins can cause serious health problems in your gastrointestinal system. You should immediately consult a doctor if you experience nausea and vomiting. You might need antibiotics or other medications to fight the infection. Taking probiotic supplements during this period may also help.

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Mold in Soft Cheeses

While some molds are not safe to eat, this cheese in the pictured photo is an exception. It contains Penicillium camemberti, a known fungus. It is used in the production of popular cheeses, including Brie, Camembert, and Cambozola cheeses.

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Cheese manufacturers either mix the mold into the ingredients or add it to the outside of the cheese. Penicillium creates the blue to dark gray roots in this cheese. If you’re wondering why anyone would make moldy cheese, read on!

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Texture and Flavor

Different cheeses have different textures and flavors created by bacteria digesting specific proteins and sugars. Brie and Camembert cheeses have a soft, buttery texture because of P. camemberti.

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The method used to age these blue cheeses causes high acidity, a high degree of moisture, a good supply of oxygen, and high density. These conditions prevent dangerous molds and harmful toxins from growing. That’s why the presence of mold in this delicious cheese is safe to eat.

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What Is Blue Cheese?

Let’s dive into the topic of blue cheese! Did you know that it has sharp and salty characteristics? Yes, blue cheese is a little saltier than other cheeses. If you’ve eaten a lot of blue cheese, odds are, you’ve smelled it on your hands before too.

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It has a foul smell that comes from both the mold and the growing bacteria in the cheese. Though blue cheese has an unpleasant odor, it is healthier than other forms of dairy because it contains less lactose and more nutrients.

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The Health Benefits of Blue Cheese

Blue cheese is rich in nutrients and provides a variety of notable health benefits that people can enjoy. A certain kind of mold called Penicillium roqueforti in blue cheese can help lower cholesterol and control blood pressure.

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Blue cheese also contains a compound known as spermidine. It delays aging and reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease for some consumers. Though the effect remains unclear, experts suspect that blue cheese has positive effects on cardiac muscle cells.

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Blue Cheese Can Treat Other Illnesses

Besides all of the benefits detailed above, blue cheese also reduces the risk of inflammatory diseases such as arthritis and inflammatory bowel disease. It contributes to lower plaque levels in our arteries, strengthening the immune system, and fighting sinus problems and food allergies.

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Along with these benefits, the high calcium content in cheese is also linked to improved gut health and fat burning. Studies found that eating blue cheese manages and burns excess abdominal fat in the body. If you wish to maintain a fit body, add blue cheese to your diet.

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Nutrients and Minerals

Blue cheese is also great as it contains a lot of minerals and vitamins, such as potassium, phosphorus, calcium, and zinc, as well as vitamins A, D, and B12. It is also one of the best sources of magnesium, which is important for reducing muscle stiffness.

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Most notably, blue cheese is rich in calcium  – the main mineral responsible for bone density. At the same time, vitamin B12 improves the nervous system and boosts functions like cell metabolism and red blood cell formation. Can you believe that?

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Ideal for Children and the Elderly

Every ounce of blue cheese has an average of six grams of protein, which can contribute to the growth of bones, cartilage, muscles, hair, skin, and blood vessels. A study on young female athletes provided evidence for this theory.

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Researchers found that dairy products such as blue cheese prove more effective at promoting growth and bone strength than calcium supplements. Also, this dairy product can help improve brain function because it helps promote the regeneration of brain cells – specifically for the elderly and children.

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Penicillin is a Friend to Humanity

Penicillin is derived from penicillium mold. The antibiotic penicillin was the first major antibiotic in the world. Its discovery in the 19th century greatly increased the power doctors had to protect patients against infection.

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Before its introduction in the 1940s, doctors were helpless when confronted with pneumonia, gonorrhea, and rheumatic fever cases. Though it was in the UK where penicillin was discovered, mass production began in America.

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The Discovery of Penicillin

In 1928, Alexander Fleming accidentally discovered penicillin. After returning from a holiday, he was sorting bacteria samples in his lab when he noticed some mold growing on one of the dishes. That mold turned out to be colonies of Penicillium notatum

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Alexander Fleming observed that there was no bacterial growth within the area surrounding a certain mold. So, he thought that the mold must have useful properties. Fleming asked his assistant to isolate the mold from the fluid so he could examine it more closely.

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Penicillin Became the Most Used Antibiotic

In 1929, Fleming published his findings in the British Journal of Experimental Pathology. At this stage, he had just realized the potential therapeutic benefits of his discovery. Scientists developed a keen interest in purifying and developing penicillin, but most failed.

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Boris Chain and Howard Florey were the ones to finally purify it in the late 1930s. An injectable form of it arrived soon after, and it is still used today to fight meningitis and infections that could otherwise be deadly. While ingesting mold on food can lead to discomfort and nausea, without mold scientists would never have developed penicillin. As with most things in life, there’s clear positive and negative factors that stem from mold.

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