Is my 2-day-old lunch boozing me up at work?
February 3, 2007 1:41 PM   Subscribe

Two days ago I made a simple quinoa dish with carrot and zucchini squash. I added copious amounts of brewer's yeast for flavor and nutrional value, and threw it all into a tightly-sealed tupperware container while it was still warm. I then placed it into my backback for later consumption.

Now it's two days later, I'm at work, and hunger is gnawing at my insides. I have no money, but discover the container of food in my backpack, where it's been sitting for a couple of days in a fairly warm environment. I chow it all down, noting that it tastes - and smells - funky. Sour, bitter, but not altogether bad. Additionally, the zucchini slices look and taste more like pickle slices.

It's 30 minutes later now, and I swear to God I have a little bit of a buzz on. Is it possible that the food fermented somehow and the yeast broke down some of the quinoa into alcohol? That's ridiculous, right? I mean, there's just no way. Is there? Does yeast work that quickly? Am I ridiculous for even asking? (Seriously, though, unless I'm mistaken, I am a little tipsy even as I type this. Maybe it's just general wooziness, or maybe I'm crazy.)

Also: why does my zucchini seem to have pickled? Could someone offer a scientific explanation?
posted by duffell to Food & Drink (19 answers total)
Yes. Yeast + sugar = carbon dioxide and alcohol.

I don't know whether your zucchini has pickled, but you may be.

posted by donpardo at 1:48 PM on February 3, 2007

I'd just like to note that I am amazed that anyone would even consider, let alone eat, perishable food that has been sitting in a warm place for two days. Just the risk for food poisoning alone would be enough to toss it.

Anyway, to your question, I know that fresh cider will turn in a matter of days, so I think it is probable that your meal had started to ferment. To what degree, I don't know. Perhaps the fermentation kept you from eating some other more nefarious bugaboo. Still a little reckless, me thinks.
posted by qwip at 1:58 PM on February 3, 2007

Best answer: The high protein content, and extreme complexity of the starch molecules in Quinoa do not make it a good target for yeast, although that combination makes excellent bacteria fare.

But, since you added a "copious amount of yeast" then it is obviously yeast at work here. Yeast works very fast. Bread fermentation only takes a couple of hours... Not even a whole day if refrigerated. Your food was not refrigerated at all. (bread doesn't get you buzzed because the alcohol evaporates at about 172 Fahrenheit)

The alcohol that the yeast produced might have saved your food from bacteria, but I wouldn't place any bets.

If yeast did have a hay-day in your lunch, then everything would not have been pickled. Basically, microorganisms that pickle things are lactic acid producing bacterium, like how Sauerkraut and Kim Chee are made... Granted, when those products are made, It is an intentional fermentation. What you did was... well... I hope you have a comfortable toilet.
posted by sindas at 2:20 PM on February 3, 2007

My brewer husband points out that the reason you're not incredibly sick (knock on wood) is that the yeast out-competed any other micro-organisms that would grow and poison you. He says that likely after a few more days, the yeast would have been out-competed (nothing to preserve it) and bad things would have taken over. Acetic acid (vinegar) is closely related to alcohol and easily produced in an uncontrolled environment.

But still, shocked that anyone would even think to eat that especially not knowing how fermentation works.
posted by R343L at 2:33 PM on February 3, 2007

I swear to God I have a little bit of a buzz on.

You could call it a buzz, sure. Others might call it the beginnings of nausea and lightheadedness that often come before violent reactions to food poisoning.

According to Wikipedia, 5,000 people in the U.S. die each year of foodborne illnesses. Please don't be the punchline to a story that starts out, "There was this guy one time..."
posted by frogan at 2:53 PM on February 3, 2007

Response by poster: If it makes you feel better, I'm doing fine, no nausea, no buzz, just boredom at work.
posted by duffell at 3:05 PM on February 3, 2007

Don't be so quick to judge this person who just ate food that others might consider spoiled. Mankind subsisted for hundreds and thousands of years without refrigeration. Your great great grandfather probably ate a few questionable items in his day, something you wouldn't dream of touching. What doesn't kill you makes you stronger.
posted by Dave Faris at 3:32 PM on February 3, 2007

Thanks for the clue to my continuing puzzle about how mankind discovered yoghurt, cheese, beer, wine, sauerkraut, etc. Something similar may have occurred to our ancient ancestors, and some brave SOB had to be the first one to taste it.

If duffell made the quinoa fresh and steamed/stir fried the vegetables, he probably sterilized the medium before innoculating it. Adding yeast immediately afterward in this case would basically turn it into a quinoa/veggie beer wort.

Methinks all the hysteria about food poisoning is a little excessive, though personally I would have thrown it out, too. My hypothesis sounds good in retrospect, but this is not something I would want for my entry into this year's Darwin awards!

Glad you lived to tell the tale, duffell.
posted by FauxScot at 4:01 PM on February 3, 2007

Your great great grandfather probably ate a few questionable items in his day

He also had a life expectancy that was vastly lower, due, in part, to preventable illnesses like food poisoning.

If this case didn't result in any adverse effects, great. If you were starving, I'd say eat it, with no hesitation. When you live in a society where you have easy access to all sort of non-spoiled food, though, why take unnecessary chances?
posted by chrisamiller at 4:56 PM on February 3, 2007

If duffell had written us before he'd taken the first bite, I guess I would agree that urging him not to would be the wisest course. As it was, he wrote it after he'd consumed it. Warning him now is just closing the barn door after the horses had gotten out. Besides, anyone who fearlessly swallows quasi moldy foodstuffs probably doesn't really want our advice on whether to eat it or not. He just wanted to know if he invented a new cheap and legal way to get high.
posted by Dave Faris at 6:38 PM on February 3, 2007 [1 favorite]

There are two reasons why the brewer's yeast you added is unlikely to lead to any significant alcohol in your food. First, there's little fermentable sugar in your dish. Yeast only eat relatively simple sugars, which quinoa doesn't have. Unless you added something laden with simple sugars (carrots probably don't count) I doubt the yeast would have enough food to create noticeable amounts of alcohol. Second, and most importantly, the processing the brewer's yeast undergoes (grinding and freeze drying) kill it, rendering completely incapable of fermenting sugars into alcohol. Perhaps some brands of brewer's yeast are less processed than others, but in that case the first point still holds. In the absence of a significant amount of fermentable sugars, no noticeable alcohol would be created.
posted by mollweide at 6:47 PM on February 3, 2007

If duffell had written us before he'd taken the first bite, I guess I would agree that urging him not to would be the wisest course.

You're assuming, of course, that the only person reading this is duffell. I think it is reasonable to let anyone else know that there were inherent risks in what he did. Glad it seems to have worked out well, but the lesson here may not be "way to go!".

Also, those chastising him also answered his question, so where's the problem?

And to counter your "Great Grandfather" argument, our ancestors also learned by watching the guy who'd eat anything keel over and die from such a stunt, thus learning "there are things to avoid, and spoiled food is one of them".

Also note, botulism can occur between 12-36 hours after consuming tainted food. Just something to keep an eye on.
posted by qwip at 7:19 PM on February 3, 2007

Botulism isn't likely to happen in food that's been prepared and put in Tupperware. It needs to be somewhere where air can't get in order to do any serious growing.
posted by oats at 7:50 PM on February 3, 2007

Wouldn't yeast potentially make the environment anaerobic? I'm no microbiologist, but it stands to reason that any oxygen would be converted to carbon dioxide by active yeast, no?

This is assuming the point that mollweide made about the yeast probably not being active is not the case here.

Not trying to scare anyone, but just curious about the science.
posted by qwip at 7:56 PM on February 3, 2007

I have a container of beer wort that's been sitting warm on a bench for a month. I could drink it right now, and it might taste a bit weird but it would be okay. I would know if it wasn't okay because it would be awful tasting.

If you cook a vegetarian dish at high temperature (sterilising it), then put it in a clean airtight container, it's really not that different from the beer wort.

Bread doesn't get alcoholic, as sindas says, but it's not so much because of evaporation, rather the fact that to make a regular 5% alcohol beer requires up to 1.5 kilgrams (about 3lb) of sugar for a 20l brew tank. The yeast also needs to stay reasonably cool to survive.

So, unless you have a lot of sugar in your food, and added the yeast once the meal was about body temperature, I doubt it's fermenting.

Also, the idea of using yeast for the taste is brilliant. It's a flavour I love, but I've never even considered it purely as a taste ingredient. How about a recipe?
posted by tomble at 8:50 PM on February 3, 2007

@mollweide: Not arguing with you, but why would the yeast be dead? Wouldn't that sort of eliminate the point of the whole product? I mean, if the processing kills the yeast ... the result is defective yeast, right? (Who would want a lot of dead yeast-parts?) I do a lot of bread baking, and that stuff is definitely processed and dried, but it's by no means dead. It'll look like dry granules one minute, but toss it in with some warm water and sugar and it'll start doing its thing. So why would this brewer's yeast be any different?

If the yeast that went into this concoction was definitely dead/inactive, than that would have a significant impact on the outcome, because it would mean whatever was going on in the food was the result of (potentially unfriendly) bacteria, rather than the (relatively harmless) yeast.
posted by Kadin2048 at 8:51 PM on February 3, 2007

mollweide FTW. The yeast was already dead.
posted by Durin's Bane at 8:52 PM on February 3, 2007

So-called "brewers yeast" is the residue from brewing. It's processed and quite dead.

One interesting possibility is that some fungus or other is producing psychoactive compounds, a la ergot.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 8:56 PM on February 3, 2007

Not arguing with you, but why would the yeast be dead?

The stuff sold at organic food stores as nutritional/brewer's yeast is also always labeled as inactive. It apparently has nutritional benefits that are independent of any fermenting/leavening action.

My theory is that the flavor changes are the result of the quinoa becoming rancid (which I've read it does fairly quickly, compared to most grains). I don't know about the rest.
posted by advil at 9:30 PM on February 3, 2007

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