I made a post about the shelf life of foods a couple years ago, but it was a bit short and there were a few inconsistencies, so I decided to delete it and start over. Originally I meant to make a new food shelf life chart, but in my research I found that many sources disagree on how long various foods last. So instead, I want to to share some information on what affects food shelf life and how to take the expiration date on the package into account. Keep in mind that this article is mainly about food you can store in your pantry. You should be more cautious with refrigerated foods.
How to read expiration dates
Look at the expiration date on the food you buy. Virtually everything has an expiration date on it nowadays. But unfortunately, there is no standard format in which the date is printed. For example, on a package of General Mills flour you might see the code, G221. For them, the months are labeled A-M starting with June (and skipping the letter I), so the G means December. The first 2 is the last digit of the year, so it means 2012. And the 21 is the date of the month. So G221 means December 21, 2012. There are dozens of ways food companies print the expiration date, but most of the time, it’s pretty clear (ex. 12-21-2012). If you’re unsure, check the company’s web site to find out how they do it.
Here are a few examples of the types of codes you might see (I used the date December 21, 2012 in each case):
122112X: First two digits = month, next two digits = day, last two digits = year.
35628B2: First three digits = day of the year (the 356th day), next digit = year.
2356: First digit = last digit of year, next three digits = day of the year.
12212: First two digits = month, second two digits = date, last digit = last digit of year.
The digits I didn’t explain are manufacturing codes that have to do with less important information such as the plant at which it was packaged.
Once you’ve figured out the date, get a Sharpie and some labels (I prefer masking tape because it’s cheap, sticks well, and you can write on it) and put a label with the date on the front of everything so you can keep your food organized and rotate it more easily.
Actual Food Shelf Life
According to a study by Shelf Life Advice, 75% of people think food is unsafe to eat after the expiration date. That’s a shame because a lot of perfectly healthy food gets wasted. Food companies tend to print an expiration date that is far sooner than the actual expiration date. Usually, it’s a just a guideline for grocery stores so they know the last day to leave the item on the shelf. In some cases, the company puts the date on there to avoid being sued by some idiot who eats 10-year-old mac and cheese and gets sick. But often the date is there to increase turnover and make more money. (People say, “We better eat this food before it goes bad.”)
The truth is, food will usually last up to a year beyond the expiration date (except for a few exceptions like brown rice and items with dairy). Canned food will often last several years or even decades longer. Just make sure the can isn’t dented, bulging or rusty. On the other hand, if the can or package has been opened, then unless it’s a very long-lasting food like salt or sugar, you need to consume it quickly.
How to Store It
The ideal temperature to store food is 65 degrees F or less, and for every 15 degrees in temperature increase, the shelf life of food is reduced by 50%. I know it’s more expensive and a bit chilly, but try to keep your house at 70 or less during the summer if you don’t mind wearing a sweater and paying a higher power bill because it could change some of your food’s shelf life by up to a year. Your food will also last longer if it’s in a dry environment, kept in airtight containers, and kept out of the light. I talked about some of those things in this post. Also, you can extend the expiration date even further by sealing your food in Mylar bags or dehydrating it. If you really don’t want to worry about this, consider buying some pre-packaged dehydrated or freeze dried food because it will last as long as 20 years.
Of course, you should always smell food that’s gone beyond the expiration date. If in doubt, toss it out.
What to read next: Busting the Canned Food Expiration Date Myth