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Pancakes won’t turn you into a zombie like in HBO’s ‘The Last of Us,’ but mold in flour has long been making people sick


In the HBO series “The last of us”, named after the popular video game of the same name, the world’s flour supplies have been contaminated with a so-called fungus cordyceps. When people eat pancakes or other foods made with that flour, the fungi grow in their bodies and turn into zombies.

Like a food scientist, I study the effect of processing on the quality and safety of fruit and vegetables, including the flour used to make pancakes. While no one turns into a zombie in real life by eating pancakes, flour is often contaminated with molds that can produce mycotoxins that make people sick. However, proper processing and preparation can generally protect you.

‘The Last of Us’ is based on a pandemic that brings the world to an apocalyptic collapse.

How common are molds in flour?

People eat bread made from wheat for about 14,000 years and growing wheat at least 10,000 years. 1882, “drunken bread sicknesswas first documented in Russia, where people reported dizziness, headaches, hand tremors, confusion and vomiting after eating bread. Long before that, Chinese farmers reported that eating rose wheat is a major sign of infection with a so-called fungus Fusarium – made them feel sick. It is clear that fungi have been making people sick for a long time.

Wheat, corn, rice, and even fruits and vegetables can become infected with fungi if they grow in the field. In “The Last of Us,” an epidemiologist theorizes that climate change is causing the fungus to mutate so it can infect humans. The unfortunate reality is that mold has become a bigger problem in recent years warmer temperatures stimulate their growth.

A 2017 study found that more than 90% of wheat and cornmeal samples in Washington, D.C. contain live molds, with Aspergillus And Fusarium the predominant fungal species in wheat flour. Fusarium grows on wheat in the field and can cause a common agricultural plant disease called fusarium blightor crust.

Farmers use multiple techniques to reduce this devastating plant disease, including practicing crop rotation, using resistant varieties and fungicides, and minimizing irrigation during bloom. After harvesting, they sort the grains to remove contaminated wheat before they are ground into flour. While sorting removes most of the contaminated wheat, small amounts of mold can still get into the flour.

Wheat infected with fusarium blight has a characteristic pink hue.
Tomasz Klejdysz/iStock via Getty Images Plus

Killing microorganisms in flour

The good news is that most fungi and other microorganisms die at 160-170 degrees Fahrenheit (71-77 degrees Celsius). Pancakes are usually cooked to an internal temperature of 190-200 F (88-93C). Other cakes and breads are cooked to internal temperatures anywhere from 180 to 210 degrees Fahrenheit (82-99C). So, unlike “The Last of Us,” as long as you bake or fry your dough, you’ve killed the mold.

The problem arises when people eat the flour without cooking it first, for example by consuming raw cookie dough or “licking the bowl clean”. Both raw egg and raw flour can contain microorganisms that make people sick. The microorganisms that public health officials are most concerned about are E coli And Salmonelladangerous pathogens that can cause serious illnesses.

Most people don’t realize that the flour they buy from the store is raw flour that still contains living microorganisms. Flour is rarely treated commercially to be safe to eat raw because consumers almost always cook flour-based foods. While consumers can also try heating raw flour at home, this is not recommended because the flour may not be spread thin enough to kill all microorganisms.

Microscopy image of _Aspergillus_
Aspergillus is one of the most common molds in wheat flour.
tonaquatic/iStock via Getty Images Plus

Some fungi and microorganisms can create spores, which are like seeds that help them survive adverse conditions. These spores can survive cooking, drying and freezing. There are even 4,500 year old yeast spores which have been reawakened and made into bread. These fungal spores rarely cause serious illness in humans, except those with rheumatoid arthritis weakened immune system.

Chemicals can be added to food stop mold growth. These additives include sorbates, benzoates and propionates. However, you hardly ever see these additions in flour or pancake mix because molds cannot grow in a dry powder. The mold grew on the wheat in the field or on the bread after it was baked. For that reason, you may see these additives in bread, but not in a powder mix.


The greatest risk of molds is not that they grow in our bodies, but that they grow on wheat or other food and produce chemicals called mycotoxins that can cause serious health problems. When wheat is harvested and ground into flour, it can contain mycotoxins.

Unfortunately, while normal cooking can kill the microorganisms, it is does not destroy the mycotoxins. Eating mycotoxins can cause problems ranging from hallucinations to vomiting and diarrhea to cancer or death. Some of the common mycotoxins found in grain include aflatoxins, deoxynivalenol, ochratoxin A and fumonisin B.

Moldy pastries on a plate
It might be best to leave that moldy bread alone.
Yulia Naumenko/Moment via Getty Images

The oldest known case of mycotoxin poisoning is recorded as a disease called ergotism. Ergotism was mentioned in the Old Testament and has been reported in Western Europe since 800 AD. It has even been suggested that the Salem witch trials were caused by an outbreak of ergotism that caused the victims to hallucinate, although many have disputed this idea. Wheat is less likely than other grains to contain dangerous mycotoxins, which is why some have proposed that the declining mortality in 18th century Europe, especially in Englandwas due to the switch from a rye-based diet to a wheat-based diet.

You don’t have to worry about eating those pancakes in the end. Farmers use many techniques to minimize mold growth and remove moldy grains, and the government closely monitors mycotoxin levels during crop production and storage. Be sure to cook your bakery items before eating and don’t eat anything that starts to go moldy.

Merry C. Vega is a highly respected and accomplished news author. She began her career as a journalist, covering local news for a small-town newspaper. She quickly gained a reputation for her thorough reporting and ability to uncover the truth.

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