When what your garden produces is less than perfect: Should I eat that?
By Diane Wright Hirsch, MPH, RD
UConn Extension Educator, Food Safety
It is common practice for the supermarket shopper and the farmers’ market customer to pick up every pepper and head of lettuce for closer inspection. When we buy produce, we do not want to spend our money on imperfect fruits or veggies: no holes in the lettuce, no bruises on the apples, no cuts in our potatoes. An oddly shaped cucumber? Nope.
When it comes to our own vegetable patches, we are often less picky. So little is produced in my small, shaded back yard, that I will put up with all kinds of blemishes… lettuce covered with dirt and holes, and tomatoes with deep grooves or insect damage. I just want to be able to say, “I grew it myself!” when served for dinner. And of course, the argument against wasting perfectly healthful, if not perfectly looking, food is a strong one.
But how do you know the difference between what is perfectly good after a well placed knife takes care of the yucky parts or if there is an increased risk to health from the bacteria or other bugs that can find their way into a tomato or cucumber? What can you eat and what should be tossed in the compost bin?
Insect damage, healed cuts, small holes or scars: For the most part, insect damage does not render fruits and vegetables inedible. If slugs take a little chew out of your lettuce or a weevil leaves a small hole in your pepper, cut away the damage and thoroughly inspect what is left. If it all looks good, then feel free to eat the rest.
Damage by wildlife: This is a bit more tricky. Several foodborne illness outbreaks attributed to produce were thought to be caused by wild life. More specifically, the poop they leave in the vicinity. If something has nibbled at your lettuce, look around for signs of rabbit pellets or deer poop. If your tomatoes are covered in bird waste, leave it be. Don’t harvest any fruits or vegetables that appear to be contaminated by animal wastes: E. coli O157:H7 and Salmonella are two of the bacteria that could be found in them.
As with insect damage, most bruises are simply cosmetic damage at the worst. Bruises happen when we drop an apple or even if we pile too many tomatoes on top of each other. The skin is thin, so damage occurs just below the surface. Often the flesh turns soft and maybe even brown—the result of oxygen damage to cells. There is not much risk to eating lightly bruised produce. The one exception might be if you plan to make jams, jellies, or other canned goods from them. Overripe and bruised fruits and vegetables might contribute to overly soft jams or jellies. Or, if making tomato sauce or pickles, the chemical reactions in bruised or over-ripe produce can actually contribute to a higher pH or lower acid content of the product, affecting the safety of the final product.
When to be more careful: If damage is more extensive, holes in tomatoes, melons or zucchini are large, the tissue around damage or scars is soft, slimy or even moldy, then this is a good candidate for the compost pile. The microorganisms that cause foodborne illness, such as E. coli O157:H7 orSalmonella, can set up shop on fruits and vegetables where damage has led to softening and rotting. The cell walls have been compromised, making nutrients (carbohydrates, some proteins) available to support the multiplication of these pathogens. While cooking would destroy them, why risk cross-contamination and illness in a susceptible family member. The compost pile will thank you.
Mold on produce should not be taken lightly either. Some molds can cause allergic reactions while others can produce mycotoxins under the right growing conditions. These toxins or poisons can make you sick: some are thought to be cancer–causing or cancer–promoting. One example is aflatoxin, produced by a mold (Aspergillus flavus) that may be found on field corn or peanuts. Patulin is a mycotoxin produced by a variety of molds, particularly Aspergillus and Penicillium found on apples and pears. Other mycotoxins may simply cause an upset stomach and diarrhea.
Some molds are likely to be harmless if ingested. But, since most people do not have the ability to distinguish between harmless types of mold and those that can make you sick, the best advice is to avoid mold and foods that are significantly affected by mold.
- For firm fruits and vegetables such as cabbage, bell peppers, and carrots, you can use them if they have a little bit of mold on them. Cut off at least 1 inch around and below the mold spot (keep the knife out of the mold itself so it will not cross-contaminate other parts of the produce). Small mold spots can be cut off fruits and vegetables with low moisture content. It’s difficult for mold to penetrate dense foods.
- For softer fruits and vegetables such as cucumbers, peaches, berries, and tomatoes, it is best to discard any with any mold on them. Fruits and vegetables with high moisture content can be contaminated below the surface.
Of course, just because your cucumbers managed to grow through your fence, leaving them oddly shaped, keep in mind that misshapen fruits and veggies that appear in your garden are a gift—often leading to great discussions at dinner—a veggie Rohrshach test of sorts. What do you think it looks like?
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