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Doing This With Pasta May Actually Make It Deadly, Science Says

Important information ahead of summer picnic season.
FACT CHECKED BY Faye Brennan

Sure, it's common knowledge that letting some foods sit out is dangerous. However, a biotechnology scientist has raised a serious flag about eating starchy dishes like pasta and rice when these foods are past their prime and have been left sitting out. In fact, most people don't realize that treating these prepared foods any differently than dairy or meat does have the potential to turn lethal.

It's possible to get food poisoning from a cooked starch that's been sitting out too long. And yes, it can turn serious. In the most severe cases, it may even lead to death, according to Australian National University biotechnology researcher, Anukriti Mathur. Often to blame for this is a bacterium called Bacillus cereus, Mathur tells Science Daily. Its most dangerous strains can spread in soil and our food… and if we consume it, our digestive systems.

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Bacillus cereus uses the nutrients found in rice, dairy products, spices, dried foods, and vegetables to reproduce, Mathur explains. As Live Science reports: "Starchy foods, such as rice, are the most common sources of food affected." The bacterium releases two types of toxins: One that spreads throughout the food itself and can cause vomiting, and another that's released within the small intestine after the food is consumed to cause cramps and diarrhea. Bacillus cereus is responsible for a concept one microbiologist called "fried rice syndrome." This is because the cooked rice that's intended for use in fried rice dishes often cools long enough to reach a critical temperature point that allows B. cereus to thrive.

Unfortunately, in some cases, B. cereus exposure turns serious. A 2005 journal article cited a case study from 2003 in which five children from the same Belgian family developed major food poisoning symptoms after eating pasta salad that had been cooked days prior, brought to a picnic and left out, then brought home, refrigerated, and served again. Two children experienced acute respiratory distress, and shockingly, one of those two—a seven-year-old girl—died from liver failure. The surviving siblings remained in the hospital with symptoms for a week.

Clearly, severe food poisoning can occur from pasta or rice that's gone "off," but, as the study suggested, most people aren't aware of it because it typically leads to milder symptoms.

The moral of the story is to eat carbs when they're nice and hot and freshly cooked. Cover any leftovers and immediately refrigerate. Then heat the leftovers, and eat immediately—don't let them sit out.

Get caught up on food safety news with the two major macaroni and cheese brands that are both being sued for toxins.

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Krissy Gasbarre
Krissy is a senior news editor at Eat This, Not That!, managing morning and weekend news related to nutrition, wellness, restaurants and groceries (with a focus on beverages), and more. Read more
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