A warning claims that expired cake mix or pancake mix can be lethal. Is this true or false?
The warning is possible, but it is mostly an exaggeration of two isolated events.
First, let’s take a look at the warning as it has circulated for the past few years.
Cake Mix Warning (not a joke)Warning re: cake mixes – who knew?I always thought that “old” mixes that were past their expiration date would just not rise/bake correctly. This is scary!Somebody wrote: ‘Before my surgery I bought quite a few Duncan Hines cakes mixes that were on sale. A couple of months ago I decided to use one, I checked the e expiration date and found it past, all the boxes were past the expiration date.I phoned Duncan Hinds to ask if the one that was only two months passed if it was OK. She told me in no uncertain words to throw them all out, she even said to open the boxes and throw the mix in the garbage, just in case someone picked it up and used it.
Cake Mixes & Toxins- **PLEASE READ** Pass this on to ALL in your address book. You never know whose life you may save by doing so. For those of you at work, PLEASE remember to check your cupboards when you get home tonight!!! A student at HBHS (high school) had pancakes this week and it almost became fatal. His Mom (registered nurse) made him pancakes, dropped him off at school and headed to play tennis. She never takes her cell phone on the court but did this time ; and her son called to say he was having trouble breathing. She told him to go to the nurse immediately and proceeded to call school and alert the nurse. The nurse called the paramedics and they were there in 3 minutes and worked on the boy all the way to the hospital. He came so close to dying. Evidently this is more common then I ever knew. Check the expiration dates on packages like pancakes and cake mixes that have yeast which over time develop spores.
Apparently, the mold that forms in old mixes can be toxic! Throw away ALL OUTDATED pancake mix, brownie mixes, Bisquick, cake & cookie mixes, etc., you have in your home.P.S. Tell this to your children, grandchildren, nephews, nieces and anyone else who keeps these types of mixes in the cupboard.P. P.S. This warning especially applies to any person(s) with mold allergies.
This warning above appears to have surfaced as a result of a Dear Abby column dated April 14, 2006. Below is that letter and the response:
PANCAKES MADE FROM OLD MIX CAUSE ACUTE ALLERGIC REACTION
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.
My husband, a volunteer firefighter and EMT, heated up some water, and we had my son lean over the water so the steam could clear his chest and sinuses. Soon, his breathing became more regular and his lips returned to a more normal color.
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!
When we told our friends about my son’s close call, we were surprised at the number of people who mentioned that they should check their own pancake mix since they don’t use it often, or they had purchased it some time ago. With so many people shopping at warehouse-type stores and buying large sizes of pancake mix, I hope your readers will take the time to check the expiration date on their boxes. — SUE IN WYANTSKILL, N.Y.
DEAR SUE: Thank you for the warning. I certainly was not aware that pancake mix could turn moldy and cause an allergic reaction in someone with an allergy to mold — but it’s logical. I wonder if the same holds true for cake mix, brownie mix and cookie mix. If so, then a warning should be placed on the box for people like me.
According to a 2001 abstract found on PubMed, there was also a death due to an allergic reaction to mold after a 19-year old ate pancakes made from a box of mix that had been open in the cabinets for two years. The victim was allergic to mold and penicillin. The account reads:
The authors report the death of a 19-year-old white male who had a history of “multiple allergies,” including pets, molds, and penicillin. One morning, he and his friends made pancakes with a packaged mix that had been opened and in the cabinet for approximately 2 years. The friends stopped eating the pancakes because they said that they tasted like “rubbing alcohol.” The decedent continued to eat the pancakes and suddenly became short of breath. He was taken to a nearby clinic, where he became unresponsive and died…The pancake mix was analyzed and found to contain a total mold count of 700/g of mix as follows: Penicillium, Fusarium, Mucor, and Aspergillus. Witness statements indicate that the decedent ate two pancakes; thus he consumed an approximate mold count of 21,000. The decedent had a history of allergies to molds and penicillin, and thus was allergic to the molds in the pancake mix.
Notice that in both cases, there were claims of a “funny” taste, but the pancakes were eaten anyway.
Back in 2010, writer Jennifer Mastroianni was able to contact Duncan Hines regarding the warning above, and the response given was that it was false because “We do not have yeast in any of our products.” It was also suggested that the primary reason to discard expired cake mix is that, “The cake may not rise correctly.”
This blogger also sought out the opinion of Dr. Cara Natterson in 2009, who responded to the story:
Molds or mold spores do have the ability to cause severe allergic reactions in some people. But we shouldn’t go panic about pancake mix. If the mix is packaged in an air-tight plastic pouch, it is extremely difficult for there to be enough moisture inside the pouch to allow molds to gain access and grow.
And while you certainly should check expiration dates and toss old products, this particular scenario is highly unusual and requires a number of aligned circumstances: an expired mix, a non-airtight pouch, a person who continues to eat (maybe because he doesn’t notice) mold-infested pancakes, and serious allergic reaction to the mold.
Duncan Hines Response
In April 2013, Duncan Hines, posted the following response to expired cake mix concerns on their Facebook page:
Due to consumer inquiries regarding mold developing in expired mixes, we would like to assure you that there is no concern with products manufactured by Pinnacle Foods Group LLC. We place a “BEST BY” date on the packaging to ensure product quality in terms of appearance, texture and taste of the finished item. There is no food safety concern in using Duncan Hines cake mixes or Mrs. Butterworth’s pancake mixes that beyond their “BEST BY” dates. We do recommend that Duncan Hines and Mrs. Butterworth’s products be kept in a cool, dry place. In general, protecting mixes from moisture will prevent mold growth.
Pancake Mix and Anaphylactic Reaction
It has also been suggested that mold may grow in very old boxes of cake mix, potentially being deadly when eaten by those with mold allergies.
Some have suggested that another potential issue with very old cake mix is that it could also be tainted by the presence of insects.
The Doctors TV Show
Take a look at this video from the television show The Doctors, in which the cake mix warning was discussed by pediatrician Dr. Jim Sears. While it is noted that the warning has a basis in reality, they emphasize that it has only occurred in a few cases, and that unopened packages should not pose any risk.
An allergic reaction to old cake mix (or pancake mix) is possible, but extremely rare. With only two cases – the Dear Abby report and the 2001 PubMed abstract – as evidence, it seems as though the extent of the warning is overstated. Still, it’s probably best to toss out mixes that have been long expired, sat opened for a long period of time, or have been damaged.
Updated June 4, 2015
Originally published March 2013