Dear Abby owes me money.
I spent most mornings of my youth and early adulthood scanning the back page of the Chicago Tribune culture section, soaking in the drama du jour playing out in Abigail Van Buren’s long-running advice column. In 2006, one letter from a concerned parent instilled a fear of breakfast in me forever. It reads, in part:
DEAR ABBY: I recently made a batch of pancakes for my healthy 14-year-old son, using a mix that was in our pantry. He said that they tasted “funny,” but ate them anyway. About 10 minutes later, he began having difficulty breathing and his lips began turning purple. I gave him his allergy pill, had him sit on the sofa and told him to relax. He was wheezing while inhaling and exhaling.
We checked the date on the box of pancake mix and, to my dismay, found it was very outdated. As a reference librarian at an academic institution, I have the ability to search through many research databases. I did just that, and found an article the next day that mentioned a 19-year-old male DYING after eating pancakes made with outdated mix. Apparently, the mold that forms in old pancake mix can be toxic!
Luckily, the letter writer’s teenage son was not seriously harmed, but she goes on to warn Dear Abby readers about the toxicity of the mold spores that can form in expired pancake mix. Because powdery Bisquick seems so harmless past its expiration date, it’s a pantry item that many people might use months or years too late without thinking about it.
After reading this Dear Abby column, I never took that chance again. Though I remained comfortable with eating mealy apples and bricks of cream cheese past their use-by date, I threw out anything that could have dry mold spores lurking unseen in the box. Pancake mix was one thing I didn’t want to leave to chance, even if I was wasting $4 by chucking it.
Only in 2022 do I realize that all that diligence was probably unnecessary. And I feel like Dear Abby led me to waste a sizable chunk of my grocery budget.
In fairness, I should not have taken letter writer “Sue in Wyantskill” at her word. But internet fact-checking website Snopes must have figured that many people would, because its writers were already hard at work debunking the “expired pancake mix will kill you” idea by late April 2006. Turns out there’s a mix of truth and falsehood at play here.
Snopes confirms that the 19-year-old male referenced in the Dear Abby letter did, in fact, die from eating expired pancake mix in 2001. He was known to suffer multiple allergies, including an allergy to mold, and shortly after eating some pancakes that tasted like rubbing alcohol, the man went into cardiopulmonary arrest and died. The pancake mix was later analyzed and found to contain four different varieties of mold, indicating the cause of death.
However, despite this tragic incident, it would be unreasonable to say that pancake mix is toxic past its expiration date. As Snopes points out, not everyone has a mold allergy, and an otherwise healthy person who ate this expired mix wouldn’t necessarily be affected by it. Indeed, it sounds like the flavor of the moldy/expired stuff would put most people off of consuming more than a few bites of it, anyway. (The 19-year-old kept eating his pancakes despite the bad taste, but everyone in his company were grossed out and threw their pancakes away.)
Think of it this way: It’s true that peanut butter is deadly, and it’s technically accurate to say that “peanut butter can kill people.” But that’s only true if the person eating the peanut butter has a preexisting peanut allergy. For everyone else, it’s just... peanut butter.
Furthermore, dry pancake mix needs to be sitting in rather specific conditions for any mold spores to grow. It would need access to damp conditions, and the vast majority of box mixes sold today are packaged in ways that keep the dampness out. Here’s how Snopes explains it:
For mold to gain access to a food product, the foodstuff has to be exposed to its spores. Pancake mix cocooned in an unbleached wax paper, plastic, or a foil pouch within its outer packaging wouldn’t have this contact and should still be safe no matter how old it gets. However, mix sold unpouched in cardboard boxes or paper sacks would likely be at risk even if the box or sack hadn’t previously been opened, because such packaging would not necessarily keep dampness out, and mold thrives in damp environments.
Knowing that mold can only grow in boxes exposed to damp air, the expiration date becomes even less relevant—because mold can grow before that expiration date approaches, and/or can continue to be prevented after that expiration date passes.
No one should force themselves to eat the expired products in their pantry, of course, but they shouldn’t feel compelled to automatically throw out expired food, either. As we’ve seen time and again, expiration dates don’t have much to do with the safety of a food product. Storing your foods properly—dry goods in a cool, dry place; perishables in the fridge or freezer—is the best way to stay safe. And it’s probably wise to fact-check your local advice columnist.