There’s a huge cost of living crisis worsening across the UK, yet we’re still throwing away around 9.5 tonnes of food waste in a single year – some of which is perfectly good to eat.
These days, we’re hyper-aware of hygiene and are often quick to turf out leftovers the second a spot of mould appears. But given the £350 the average family wastes on chucked food every year, maybe it’s time to be a bit less cautious.
So when is it OK to shrug off the sight of mould and do those Best Before and Use By dates really matter?
OK to eat – hard cheese, jam, some fruit and veg
“You can trim mould off hard cheeses such as Cheddar because they’re dry and the mould can’t spread,” says food safety expert Sylvia Anderson. “Trim a centimetre below the surface before eating. But avoid mouldy soft cheeses unless the mould has been deliberately introduced, as with Stilton.”
Jam is mostly OK, thanks to the high sugar content. “Mould doesn’t like sugar, salt or very dry or cold conditions. Simply scoop out the top layer of jam a few centimetres under the mould and bin it.
“Fruit and veg with little spots of mould can usually be saved as long as they’re not slimy. Slime equals bacteria. Cutting around and below the mould spots on root and firm vegetables should make them safe.”
Avoid – soft fruit/veg such as cucumber and tomatoes
“Their high water content means they’re more likely to be contaminated below the surface,” says Sylvia. “Mould will have a field day on any food that’s squidgy or damp.”
Steer well clear – yoghurt, meat, cooked meats, apples, grains, pasta, bread and nuts
While some moulds are harmless, others produce mycotoxins that can penetrate deep into our food – so don’t go picking the mould off a slice of bread then eating the rest!
Mycotoxins – which are not all killed by cooking – cause the kind of contamination that can lead to food poisoning. And according to the World Health Organisation, in large doses they can even be life threatening, with some linked to cancer and damage to the immune system or liver.
Apples, meanwhile, can spawn a dangerous toxin called patulin when mouldy, which can cause an upset stomach. Mouldy peanuts, brazil nuts or almonds can pump out toxins that can increase the risk of liver cancer. You can tell they’re off if they’re shrivelled.
TIP: Keep your kitchen dry and cool to help banish mould.
According to research, 45% of us don’t know the difference between the supermarkets’ “Best Before” and “Use By” dates.
Sylvia explains, “A Use By date is found on anything you keep in your fridge that can go off quickly. I wouldn’t eat anything past its ‘Use By’ date because that’s a safety issue and you could get food poisoning. Even if it looks OK and smells OK it might contain bacteria that could make you sick.
“Best Before dates are about quality. You shouldn’t get food poisoning if it’s past this date, but it might not taste great.”
How to identify spoiled items
“Sometimes things go off before the Use By date – nothing’s guaranteed,” says Sylvia. “But you can generally tell by the look, smell or feel.”
YOGHURT AND MILK: “These split. If you put milk into a cup of tea you’ll see white bits floating around.”
FISH: “Fish eyes will be cloudy rather than clear.”
MEAT: “This can have slime on it or little white spots. Or you’ll see the ‘mermaid effect’, where it’s shimmery and green.”
EGGS: “I never throw eggs out that are past the date as they always last longer and they’re not cheap. Try the float test. Put an egg in a bowl of water; if it stays on the bottom it’s fresh; if it floats to the top, it’s off.”
Advice from a chef
Chef Mark Broadbent ignores Best Before dates…
“When I’m cooking at home, I tend to ignore Best Before dates because it’s just a safeguard for the supermarket.
I make a lot of broth and tend to throw in any leftover odds and ends that haven’t been eaten in their prime, such as salami or slightly wilted vegetables – unless it’s too bruised or rotting from the inside.
But I’d have no problem trimming a piece of cheese and I have lots of pickled, salted and tinned foods like anchovies sitting in the cupboard. Salting and canning is a very safe way of preserving food.
Chicken is the one thing I never mess around with because if it’s off it can make you really ill. If in doubt, don’t risk it.”
Mark is founder of Common Grind, which is working with Cook for Good UK to donate surplus food to charities.