Expired Foods: How Long Can They Last?


Determining the Shelf Life of Your Food

Many people struggle with determining the expiration dates of foods and when to discard them. Do you really need to throw out an unopened jar of pickles? Since yogurt is technically spoiled milk, can it really expire? With families across the country focused on budgeting their grocery bills, it is important to note the ways you can extend the shelf life of your food items.

This article talks about the different expiration dating methods used by retailers. Expiration dating reflects different quality levels for a food item. It is a matter of the quality of a products taste and consistency based on how fresh the product really is.

BeFoodSmart says that there are different kinds of dates to consider:

  • The use-by date is for foods that spoil quickly. It is established by the manufacturer and it is the recommended time of peak quality and freshness.
  • The expires or expiration date is the last time food is to be eaten or used, the date when a food may expire.
  • The guaranteed fresh date for baked goods and the best if used by or before date is a quality freshness date to ensure peak quality and is not a safety date.
  • Sell by is the last date on which the product is at its best level of quality. This date represents how long these foods should be for sale.
  • Packed on or born on date is the date of packaging or manufacture. It will be found on both packaged and canned goods.
  • Baked on/baked dates tell when the baked good was baked and how long it should sell for.
  • Can codes tell manufactures things like the date and allows for tracking etc. These dates are either by month-day-year-ie. O22813 or a Julian calendar date such as 003-0023.

Below is a list of common household foods, their true expiration dates, and tips on storage that will help extend their shelf life in a refrigerator set at 38-40 degrees Fahrenheit.

Food Expiration Dates By Type

  • Dairy

Dairy products do not last long after opening. If you are up for it, you can always smell the product. A sour smell is a quick indicator that you should not eat whatever you are sniffing.

  • Milk is good for up to one week past the “sell by” date.
  • Fresh eggs are good for three to four weeks after you purchase them. Tip:Keep the eggs in their original carton, as the plastic cartons built into the fridge do not allow them to breathe, and will cause them to spoil faster. If you are unsure of an egg’s freshness perform the float test. If it floats it’s bad and should not be eaten.
  • Organic eggs must be stored in the same manner as fresh eggs. However, Hilrey Thesmar from the American Egg Board at the Egg Safety Center says that very fresh eggs (purchased from the farm), do not require refrigeration and can be stored unrefrigerated seven to 10 days, or if refrigerated 30 to 45 days. Why? Because, washing results in the loss of moisture and carbon dioxide which in turn speeds up the spoilage rate. So, eggs that are washed according to FDA regulations can spoil faster.
  • Egg substitutes are good for three to four days after opening the carton.
  • Unopened cheese: Storage is the same for most hard cheeses regardless of the cheese being Organic. However, most hard cheeses will become crumbly upon defrosting. Open textured cheese such as Stilton will be perfectly fine once they are defrosted. The most important thing to remember when storing cheese is that you need to prevent moisture loss in the cheese you wish to store. Accomplishing this requires either an airtight container, or for the cheese to be wrapped tightly in aluminum foil and stored in a cool place, like your freezer.
  • Hard Cheese Chunk (Parmesan, Romano)
  • Fridge: 2 to 4 Months
  • Freezer: 6 to 8 Months
  • Shredded Hard Cheese
  • Fridge: 1 to 2 Months
  • Freezer: 6 to 8 Months
  • Semi-Hard Cheese Chunk (Cheddar, Swiss)
  • Fridge: 1 to 2 Months
  • Freezer: 6 to 8 Months
  • Sliced Semi-Hard Cheese
  • Fridge: 1 Month
  • Freezer: 6 to 8 Months
  • Opened Cheese:
  • Hard Cheese Chunk
  • Fridge: 3 to 6 weeks
  • Freezer: 6 to 8 Months
  • Shredded Hard Cheese
  • Fridge: 3 to 4 Weeks
  • Freezer: 6 to 8 Months
  • Semi-hard Cheese Chunk
  • Fridge: 3 to 6 weeks
  • Freezer: 6 to 8 Months
  • Sliced Semi-Hard Cheese
  • Fridge: 2 weeks
  • Freezer: 6 to 8 Months
  • Yogurt is good for two to three weeks in the refrigerator past the printed best by date. If stored in the freezer, it can last for one to two months. Note that storage is the same for all yogurts including organic yogurts, as they tend to spoil quickly. The Swedish Medical Center of Seattle Washington has researched the side effects of eating expired yogurt and other dairy products. They should not be stored in the doors of your refrigerator, but rather the refrigerator shelves.
  • Canned Goods:

Commercially canned goods can be good for up to two years after the expiration date. Low acidic foods last longer on the shelves.

  • Meat:

According to Whole Foods, shoppers should add beef to their cart last to help it stay fresher. Meats are highly perishable. Take the meat straight to your freezer or refrigerator. Generally, the larger the surface area of the meat the longer it will stay fresh in your freezer.

All flash frozen foods, including meat, are better than regular frozen food because the water molecules in flash frozen foods are frozen directly after processing and are not given time to expand. This allows the food to seal in the flavor and freshness of the food being frozen.

  • When Kept in the Fridge:
  • Raw Ground Beef: 1 to 2 days
  • Uncooked Poultry: 1 to 2 days
  • Raw Seafood: 1 to 2 days
  • Raw roasts, steaks, and chops (beef, lamb, veal and pork): 3 to 5 days
  • Cooked meat, poultry and seafood: 3 to 4 days
  • When Kept in the Freezer:
  • Cooked Poultry: 4 months
  • Uncooked Poultry: 9 months
  • Cooked meat : 2 to 3 months
  • Uncooked roasts: 4 to 12 months
  • Uncooked steaks or chops: 4 to 12 months
  • Uncooked ground meat: 3 to 4 months
  • Dry & Fresh Pasta:

The shelf life of pasta depends on if it is dry or fresh pasta. The storage and shelf life is different for each. Dry pasta should be stored in air-tight containers for up to one year.

Fresh pasta needs to be stored in your refrigerator in an airtight container because the shelf life is very short. You should use fresh pasta in a couple of days. If you freeze fresh pasta in your freezer, it will keep for up to one to two months. However, in the second month of freezing the quality will not be as high and the taste may suffer.

You will know when your fresh pasta is bad if it has mold, smells, or is discolored. Dry pasta on the other hand does not turn bad unless it gets moist or gets bugs. Know that if you store dry pasta for long periods, it will lose taste. Always inspect your dry pasta for bugs and other signs of spoilage.

  • Condiments:

The general consensus is that condiments can keep for months or years in the refrigerator. However, if you are making your own condiments from scratch you can extend the life of your condiments using the art of culturing, a fermentation process of food preservation that has been around for thousands of years. This method can extend your homemade condiment’s shelf life, from a few weeks to a few months.

The packaging for single packaged condiments (like from a fast food restaurant) allow the products to be protected from air, light and moisture for long periods of time. They can last for years. However, standard safety guidelines still apply. Regardless of the listed expiration date, if you notice your food has a strange color, odor or is growing mold, throw it out. You should avoid putting the packages in extreme temperature situations.

  • Mayonnaise is good for 2 to 3 months after opening and should be stored in the refrigerator.
  • Opened salad dressings are good for three months in the fridge after opening.
  • Unopened salad dressings are good for up to a year past its expiration date.
  • Ketchup is good for12 months if unopened. It can last for six months when opened if it is stored in the refrigerator.
  • Mustard is good for 12 months past expiration.
  • Pickles and olives are good for two weeks past the expiration date if they are opened and kept in the refrigerator.

Dr. Brian A. Nummer, Ph.D. and Brandon Jahner of Brigham Young University believes canned goods (foods canned in liquid) are safe alternatives and help meet dietary needs in addition to using fresh or frozen foods. Canned goods can be either commercially available products or home canned. If home canning they recommend using only the “best quality foods” for canning.

They suggest avoiding budget resellers, like scratch and dent sale items and rusted or bulging cans. Dr. Nummer recommends that you store canned goods off of the floor in a cool, dark, dry space, away from areas where there would be changes in temperature. Do not freeze can goods. This will change the food textures and can lead to rust, bursting cans and harmful bacteria.

They recommend using the “first-in, first out” method of storage. If the canned goods are older they recommend boiling for 10 minutes before consumption. As with any foods Nummer and Jahner recommend throwing out any cans that are rusty, leaky, bulging or dented.

The authors state that generally, “canned foods retain their best quality until the expiration code date on the can.” The date is normally, two to five years from when the product was manufactured. With regard to emergency storage the authors say: “… commercially canned foods in metal or jars will remain safe to consume as long as the seal has not been broken.” However, quality may be affected.

  • Baked Goods & Water:

Baked goods have a very short shelf life of only one to two days. On the other hand, water can be stored indefinitely according to the FDA, if produced in compliance with FDA regulations and remains unopened. Water should be stored in a location that is away from the direct sunlight and stays cool in temperature.

  • Herbs & Spices:

In general herbs and spices both culinary and medicinal do not go bad. They just lose their strength or potency as they are already dried botanicals. The key to shelf life is proper storage. Avoid plastic bags, heat, light and moisture. If you are not sure if your herbs are still good, give them the rub test. Crush them and sniff. If they smell like they are supposed to, they are still good.

  • Ground spices usually last between 6 to 12 months. Be sure to keep them in glass containers.
  • Whole herbs can be kept up to two years. They should be kept in glass containers to prevent bugs.

Remember, these are basic recommendations. Know to be mindful that lag times – the time between purchase and home storage, as well as any temperature changes during those times also affect the shelf-life of a product. Regardless of the listed expiration date, if you notice your food has a strange color, odor or is growing mold, throw it out. It is better to be safe than to save a few bucks.

For more information regarding food safety, refer to the Federal Drug Administration

Guided by these helpful tips you can focus on budgeting your grocery bills, in ways that help you can extend the shelf life of your food items.

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