By: Kerry Bazany

Toss, toss, toss; save, save, toss. As the mom of the household, you are the manager of the kitchen. More often than not, the task of cleaning and organizing the pantry falls to you. After school comes the onrush of kids in a ravenous search of snack foods. Holidays call for the preparation of wonderful baked goods. Everyday dinners involve using a variety of packaged goods from your pantry.

How Food Spoils

It’s much easier to determine the spoilage of food in the refrigerator by its appearance and smell. Food spoilage begins at the moment when produce and livestock are harvested. The action of bacteria, yeast, and molds precipitate and hasten the rate at which food spoils. The question of the edibility of pantry foods is quite different. There are a variety of foods in a typical household pantry, including: cereals, flour, crackers, chips, canned juices, sauces, and vegetables, pasta; the list is hardly inclusive. The culprits with pantry food are light and air. Transparent packaging (as occurs with pasta) is susceptible to light, and the flavor of the food will be compromised.

Quality Is Not the Same as Safety

Due to the addition of preservatives in virtually every type of canned and processed food, as well as industry adhesion to strict processing standards, you most likely feel confident using these prepared foods in your meal preparations. And you would be right. Clostridium botulinum, more commonly known as botulism, has been virtually eliminated today. These spores release a toxin in an anaerobic environment such as would be found in canned foods. If a product is affected, it would appear puffed or dented, and should be thrown away. It is more common to find clostridium botulinum or other types of contaminants in canned products containing meat or meat byproducts.

By contrast, certain foods in your pantry are more likely to deteriorate in terms of quality and taste. For example, cereals, crackers, and snack chips become stale within days (if they even last that long in your household)! Even leftover, uncooked pasta can be less flavorful when prepared if it is exposed to light, air, or both. Food items, like baking soda, baking powder and yeast, all have active ingredients and they should come with a best-before date. Nuts and seeds can go rancid due to their oil content and should be stored in the refrigerator or freezer. Aim to use spices within three years and ground spices within one to two years; however, for optimal flavor and quality only purchase what can be used in one year or store in sealed containers in the freezer. If you are unsure as to a product’s quality, safety, or if has been subject to a recall, the FDA is an excellent resource that also provides alerts when products are recalled, and why:

https://www.fsis.usda.gov/wps/portal/fsis/topics/recalls-and-public-health-alerts/current-recalls-and-alerts

 The Date’s the Thing

The manufacturers of canned and processed foods (including refrigerated foods) use a dating system to ensure product quality, but it can be confusing:

  • “Sell By” Date: Tells store employees how long to display the product. It can be used after this date, and is not the same as the expiration date.
  • “Use Before” or “Best If Used By”: This is the recommended shelf life for best flavor or quality.
  • Expiration Date: Refers to the last day the product should be used in terms of quality.
  • Infant formula is the exception to this rule: the manufacturers of baby formula must adhere to strict expiration dates as the nutrients in formula are subject to more rapid deterioration.

For a comprehensive list of recommended food storage times, including refrigerated food, refer to:

https://vtechworks.lib.vt.edu/bitstream/handle/10919/50156/348960.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y 

Food Storage Tips:

  • Keep food, whenever possible, in its original container, or in glass or airtight plastic containers.
  • Store food in a cool, dry place. Moisture and/or humidity are the proverbial enemy of crackers, chips, pasta, powdered mixes, and the like. Even insects can potentially breed in a nice, comfy pile of flour, dried fruit and candy, or dry pet food. Yes, I said breed!

Ideally, the temperature in the pantry should be 50 to 70 °F. Higher temperatures can accelerate deterioration. Store foods in the coolest cabinets away from the range, oven, water heater, dishwasher or any hot pipes. For example, the area under the sink is not a good place to store potatoes or onions. Although many staples and pantry items have a long shelf life and may be advertised at special prices, buy only what you expect to use within the recommended storage times. Storage of rice and other grains varies greatly, but whole grains have a shorter shelf life than refined grains and flours. Whole wheat varieties are best kept in the refrigerator or freezer. Dried pasta can be kept for several years. Cereals can be kept for approximately six to eight months if unopened and three months once opened in the pantry. Rolled oats should be used up within six to ten months.

You are the keeper of the pantry! It becomes easy to ignore the task of cleaning it out in terms of what and what not to keep, but it helps to rotate (pull forward) the older cans and items in your pantry, just like they do in the grocery store. Cliché as it may sound, apply the tried and true adage to your pantry items: “When in doubt, throw it out!”

https://vtechworks.lib.vt.edu

https://research.libraries.wsu.edu

http://food.unl.edu/documents/CleaningCupboard.pdf

https://www.fsis.usda.gov

https://www.fda.gov/food/foodscienceresearch