I assume that whenever the foods that we like to eat are close to room temperature, microbes are always growing in them. At some point in this continuum, the food looks, tastes or smells spoiled; and some point in the continuum, the food becomes unhealthful.

How is it that these moments coincide? Why doesn't one milestone arrive first, producing good food that looks bad or bad food that looks good?

  • Green and white fuzz are usually bad. – blacksmith37 Jan 12 '18 at 19:30
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    With most foods one milestone does appear first, and that milestone is the food being spoiled but having no smell or appearance indicating spoilage. Excellent answer here that covers this subject cooking.stackexchange.com/a/34671/7632 – Carey Gregory Jan 13 '18 at 0:14

Why? Evolution.

It's not just that spoiled food starts to show symptoms, we were naturally selected for aeons to detect these symptoms.

Telling the difference between food and poison is one of the most important survival skills for any higher organism. Any hairless monkeys which couldn't tell the difference and ate spoiled food died and didn't pass on their genes. Those who were able to tell the difference survived and passed on their genes to us.

This is how humans have evolved the ability to smell if food is good or bad. When microbes do their work, they produce poisonous chemicals. Human olfactory senses evolved to detect these chemicals and respond to them with a strong aversion. This is why bad food "stinks". Similarly we evolved an instinct to notice certain colors or textures which hint at spoilage and find them distasteful.

So if it looks spoiled, smells spoiled or tastes spoiled, follow your instincts and don't eat it.

But remember that your natural senses to detect spoiled food are not perfect. In an early phase of spoilage, the signs might not be there yet, but the food is already bad. There are certain kinds of spoilage you can not detect instinctively at all. You can only protect yourself from them by following common food safety rules. There are also some kinds of foods which appear spoiled but are actually safe to eat (like blue cheese. Throw it away when you see mold on it which is not blue).

  • I wasn't looking for practical advice (which I understand) but a more technical explanation of why signs of spoilage correlate strongly with the presence of toxins. The consensus seems to be that the correlation isn't really that strong. – Chaim Jan 17 '18 at 17:44
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    But it's hard for me to understand what evolution would explain. You say that we evolved to recognize dangers, but then you say that we're often wrong. You describe underestimating danger; do we also sometimes overestimate danger, because mold produced green fuzz and an odor, but no toxins? Why don't you suppose that it's the microbes evolving, producing signs of spoilage to keep us from eating them and their dinner, regardless of the actual danger? – Chaim Jan 17 '18 at 17:44
  • @Chaim Because we are not perfect organisms designed by an intelligent creator. We got good at detecting spoiled food but not perfect. But your hypothesis that there is a mutually beneficial co-evolution with molds developing odors to prevent animals from eating them isn't implausible either. – Philipp Jan 17 '18 at 17:57

It's clear from episodes of food poisoning everywhere that the appearance of food is not a good indication as to how healthy it is to eat. And that's why we have fairly clear rules on how many times to defrost something, or reheat something, before we eat them.

If food which has been properly cooked is left to rot, then we are mainly talking about penicillin like molds growing on them. Are they actually harmful to us? Perhaps not unless you're allergic to penicillin. But mycotoxins which can cause serious injury don't usually reach a dangerous level until the food is quite rotten at which case you're not likely to want to eat it anyway.

So, well cooked food is likely to be okay to eat until it is rotten. But it may well taste increasingly nasty and nastier.


  • This is really interesting. I'm not sure I understand. You mean that "It's clear" from the commonness of food poisoning? I have not noticed that food poisoning is common. And you mean that these common cases are usually cases of raw foods frozen and reheated, because that produces the real (but invisible) toxin? Why is it that raw foods work differently? The raw foods that you mean are animal products? – Chaim Mar 19 '18 at 16:17
  • As a medical illness it's common, and traveler's diarrhoea is also common. It can be raw vegetables contaminated by E coli, or meat – Graham Chiu Mar 19 '18 at 18:27

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