When Good Food Turns Bad

And did you really buy twenty boxes of cold cereal when Albertson’s had that incredible sale last month? But now inspiration has backfired when you realize that most of your food storage hasn’t seen the light of day since Spencer W. Kimball was Church president.

So what do you do now? Does the local food bank become the recipient of your overzealousness, or do you read on and learn what that expiration date on different foods really means.

When Cans Should be Canned

You’ll notice that when your food comes from Welfare Square, guidelines for usage, two to eight years usually, are listed on the can. These are still just guidelines, however. Canned foods are actually one of the safest and longest lasting food items you can store.

Take wet-pack items for example. According to Michelle Faist at Del Monte, the heat-sealing process that goes into canning foods kills off all harmful bacteria while preserving the foods’ nutritional value. Because of this, the shelf life is really indeterminable, although a good rule of thumb is about two to three years after purchasing for optimal flavor and quality. The manufacturer will often provide a guideline for prompt usage, but by no means does it suggest that the food is not edible past that point. The only time that canned foods should be avoided, warns Faist, is if the can has been compromised in some way and is leaking or if the top or sides are bulging.

Cereals, Pastas, and Mixes in the Line-up

But what about other products you may have purchased at the grocery store? When I asked a well-known cereal manufacturer how long its cereal was good past the “Best used by” date they cited, “Four to eight weeks is recommended for product quality.” Ok, but will it kill you if it’s longer than that? “Four to eight weeks is recommended . . .” Ok, but will it start growing things to where you open it and . . . “Four to eight weeks is recommended . . .”

You get the point. Most people know that grains, no matter how carefully packaged will eventually start to develop, here it goes, weevils. We don’t like to think about it, but it’s a fact. You’ll find that most packaging material where cereals are concerned contain BHT, a preservative added to prolong shelf life. You can help after the product’s been opened by folding the inner plastic wrap tightly down to the level of the cereal to keep it from tasting stale. But even unopened cereal boxes can’t be stored indefinitely. So, give yourself six months after the recommended date and then, find some ducks to feed.

Pastas will start to develop a funny taste when old, mainly because of the wheat or egg ingredients. But old pasta will not pose any health risk and doesn’t encourage the creepy-crawlies like other grain products, so you can decide if it’s worth keeping for an emergency.As for packaged cake, muffin, quick bread, and frozen dough items, the same rule applies: nothing lasts forever. The main concern with these types of products is that because these products contain leavening ingredients, you might end up with a flat cake or dimpled muffins. Baking soda, baking powder, and yeast do lose their stamina. So, while the taste is not impaired, the end result may not be what you desired.

Countdown on Condiments

What I found out here really surprised me. You’d think that ketchup, barbeque sauce, and mustard would have to go bad at some point. But a major manufacturer told me that the “Best if used by” guideline is for optimum food quality only, not as a warning for food safety. While the product may suffer taste-wise (ketchup gets darker and tastes a little more vinegary) it will be safe to use years after the date listed. So if your palate approves, don’t throw it out.

Salad dressings will be affected the most as far as taste is concerned. Oil does go rancid and the creamy varieties are best used within three months of opening and storing in the fridge. They tend to turn yellow and look less appealing anyway. About oil in general, you will notice a distinctive odor from oil that’s gone bad. Usually you can use it four to six months after the date, so simply test it first and you’ll know if it’s still good. Shelf life can be extended if you keep the oil in a cool, dark place. Right above or next to your stove is probably not the best place, but it tends to be where we put a lot of cooking supplies.Mayonnaise, on the other hand, can pose a health risk. Kraft Foods says you can store it unopened until two months past the expiration date. Then, open and use within four to eight weeks. If opened before the expiration date, try to finish it up in three to four months. This product should not be left out of the fridge for more than an hour at a time and can’t be frozen or the consistency changes.  

Tried and Dried

This form of food storage is a good option when you have your own produce to store. Again, the key is removing as much moisture as possible, so throw away batches if you notice any mold. Church cannery dehydrated products are a simple and trustworthy alternative to doing it yourself with a predictable shelf life. While dried vegetables and fruits rarely become dangerous or unsuitable for consumption, they will start to deteriorate after six to twelve months. This is when the matter of nutritional value is at stake. Every year the vitamin content will deteriorate until you’re left with just a good source of fiber. But hey, if you’re starving, nothing is inedible.Freeze!

An alternative to standard wet and dry packing is to freeze goods at a temperature of zero degrees Fahrenheit. It literally stops the aging process (but don’t try that on yourself). Even dry items like flour, cornmeal, spices, and yeast can stored away in the freezer and gain months on their shelf life. You can also freeze butter up to a year, cheese six to eight months, and would you believe it, eggs. Just break them out of their shell, put in a sealed container with a small amount of salt, and voilá—up to twelve months later, they’re still good. Breads and bakery items can usually be kept in the freezer for two to three months and in the refrigerator for an additional two to three weeks past the expiration date. And if you’ve looked in your grocer’s freezer section, you’ve discovered that even fresh fruits (apples, berries, melons) can be frozen and thawed for use. The texture may alter, but you can still use them for baking just as you would use fresh.

The only drawback to using freezing as your main source of storage is that if a real emergency occurred (like a natural disaster) it’s likely that power sources would be compromised as well.

So don’t be discouraged if you’re not using up your food storage like you thought you would. Many of the items will still be good for years to come, giving you plenty of time to develop a hankering for turkey chunks and refried beans.

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