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Here Are Super Common Foods That Can Be Especially Dangerous To Eat If You Leave Them Out Too Long

There’s a certain kind of toxin a zap in the microwave cannot kill — and it poses a risk to your health.

Most of us have come home from a restaurant and dropped our neatly packaged leftovers on the counter before getting distracted by our dog or kid or an episode of Abbot Elementary. Before we know it, it’s bedtime and that half-serving of pad thai has been sitting out for who knows how long. We desperately want to eat it for lunch tomorrow, but if we do, will we end up the victim of an unfortunate gastric episode — or even worse?

A woman wearing glasses standing in a kitchen, smelling a bottle of milk

That’s what we aimed to find out when we — Raj Punjabi and Noah Michelson, the co-hosts of HuffPost’s “Am I Doing It Wrong?” podcast — recently chatted with Kristen Aiken, HuffPost’s executive director of Life and Commerce.

During our 45 minutes together, Aiken, a culinary school grad and passionate food safety aficionado, gave us tips on how to spare our stomachs (and other delicate body parts) from the nightmarish repercussions of spoiled food.

The most shocking thing we learned was that some unexpected foods are especially dangerous when left out — and consuming them has even led to death. 

“[The name for this] is ‘Fried Rice Syndrome’ colloquially, but it really applies to [almost all] pastas and rices,” Aiken told us before reading from a case report about a young Belgian man who died after consuming spaghetti with red sauce that had been left on his counter at room temperature for five days. An autopsy revealed that there were high levels of bacillus cereus present in his body.

“It’s a pretty common bacteria that’s found in most foods, and it doesn’t make most of us sick most of the time,” Aiken explained. “It’s bacteria that starts as a spore that’s inactive. Once you heat it during the initial cooking, it can become activated and release toxins. And the longer the food is left out at room temperature, the more the bacteria multiplies.”

Bacillus cereus spores are most commonly associated with rice and pasta, but they can also be found in meat and cheese. They are especially risky because they are resistant to heat (they “can only be eliminated by high-temperature treatment, say 121°C for 3 minutes”), and the toxins they produce cannot be destroyed with heat. 

Fork twirling pasta in creamy sauce inside a bowl

Death from eating starchy foods left out at room temperature is rare (and other health factors may have been at play in the case of the Belgian man who died), but it can happen. It’s more likely that eating improperly stored food will cause classic food poisoning symptoms like vomiting or diarrhea that should clear up within a few days.

This is why Aiken recommends putting your leftover rice and pasta — and all other foods — in the refrigerator or freezer as quickly as possible to avoid any potential issues.

“The rule you will hear me say a million times over ... there’s this temperature danger zone between 40 degrees Fahrenheit and 140 degrees Fahrenheit where you really shouldn’t leave your food in that range for more than two hours because that’s when the bacteria start to multiply,” Aiken said. 

If something has been out for longer than two hours, you should consider throwing it away.

In this episode, we also chatted with her about whether or not ketchup and other condiments really need to go in the fridge, foods that will stay good indefinitely, and much more. Listen to it here.

After you’ve had a listen above, or wherever you get your podcasts, subscribe to “Am I Doing It Wrong?” so you don’t miss a single episode, including our investigations of how to improve our gut health, secrets for better teeth from a celebrity dentist, how to score the best deals on airline tickets, how to poop like a proapologizingvanquishing your credit card debtfinding love onlineovercoming anxietymaking a big life change and getting a tattoo.

Need some help with something you’ve been doing wrong? Email us at AmIDoingItWrong@HuffPost.com, and we might investigate the topic in an upcoming episode.

This article originally appeared on HuffPost.