Less Than Perfect Produce: What to Keep, What to Toss
I was having breakfast with a friend recently, and when I peeled my banana, I discovered that the top half was brown and bruised. I nonchalantly broke the banana in half and proceeded to eat the non-offending portion, but my friend was horrified. “How can you eat that?” she said. “Isn’t it dangerous?”
I guess if she was that scandalized by a bruised banana, I shouldn’t tell her about what I do when I find a little spot of mold growing on a block of cheese. She and her delicate sensibilities might never recover.
Fresh food is expensive, and it’s natural to try to get our money’s worth. That’s why it’s so frustrating to come across a half-eaten block of Parmesan with some mold on the edge, or an apple or pear with a soft dent on the side. It seems a shame to throw them out; as my mother used to say, there are starving people in China. Is it safe to eat these older foods?
The Truth About Ugly
In America, there’s no denying that we’re obsessed with our food being perfect and beautiful. Supermarket produce managers closely monitor their shelves, throwing out bruised fruit, oddly-shaped vegetables, or other pieces of produce with minor cosmetic flaws, relegating them to the charity bin or the compost heap. Even though we deem them aesthetically inferior, the truth is that the vast majority of these fruits and vegetables are perfectly edible and safe to eat. Produce with bruises or soft spots is prone to quicker rotting and decay and should be consumed immediately, but the surface imperfections are usually minor.
Watch out, however, for bruising that’s accompanied by a broken skin, because it could indicate rotting. If fruit or vegetables have begun the rotting process (complete with a change in color, texture, or odor), it’s best to toss them out. This is most important for items with a high water content like pineapple, peaches, grapes, tomatoes, and cucumbers, because it’s easier for bacteria to infest these items. Since it’s harder for microbes to invade dense vegetables like carrots, bell peppers, or potatoes, it’s the consumer’s choice whether to cut off the offending part and use the rest of the item, or to throw the whole thing away.
Also, just because an item is past its freshness peak, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s unusable. It’s safe to cut dry ends off cheeses, slice away the stale parts of bread, or use the rind of old citrus fruits for zest.
Most people can deal with some slight bruising, but mold is an entirely different story. Mold has roots and tentacles that can reach deep into food, so if there’s significant mold growth on the surface, there’s a good chance that the rest of the food is tainted as well, even if you can’t see it. Harmful bacteria, like listeria, E. coli, and salmonella, can also accompany mold.
Foods You Can Keep:
But don’t toss every moldy item out. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, there are some foods that, when a small amount of mold is present, it doesn’t automatically mean disaster.
- Hard shelf-stable salami and dry-cured meat products
- Hard cheeses (Parmesan, Pecorino)
- Semi-hard cheese (cheddar, gruyere)
- Cheeses that normally include mold (Roquefort, Camembert, Stilton)
- Firm, dense fruits and vegetables (cabbage, carrots, peppers)
In these instances, it’s okay to cut off the affected area to one inch below the mold spot, and use the rest of the product as usual. Just make sure not to slice into the mold itself with the knife, to prevent contamination.
Foods You Should Toss:
- Fresh meat of any kind
- Soft cheeses (feta, mozzarella, chèvre)
- Processed dairy (yogurt, sour cream)
- Jellies, preserves, and jams
- Soft fruits (apples, peaches, plums)
- Bread and cooked pasta
These items have high water content, making it more likely that mold spores (along with harmful bacteria) have permeated the entire product. Also, toss out any item that’s been shredded, crumbled, or chopped, since increased surface area means increased risk of contamination.
The next time I get a battered-looking banana, I won’t think twice about cutting out the brown bits and enjoying the rest of the fruit. I’ll save the darker pieces for banana bread.
What do you do with fruits and veggies that are past their prime?