Prudent Food Storage

The wise store up choice food and olive oil, but fools gulp theirs down. - Proverbs 21:20

Section 5 Shelf Lives
A. Food Product Dates

"How long will this keep?" is the defining question of food storage. Everything you read in this work revolves around this central question. The length of time a particular food will remain palatable and nutritious in storage determines its usefulness for our purposes. The fact of the matter is that there are few hard and clear answers. As a result it is not uncommon to find two or more sources that purport to know, but give conflicting advice. The following will hopefully cut through some of the fog.


Although there are some twenty States in the U.S. that have food product dating laws the Federal government has little regulation concerning food product dating except for infant formulas and some baby foods. It does, however, require that if a manufacturer puts a calendar date on a food product it must also put wording to the effect of "use by" or "best before" next to it to explain what the date means. This is called "open dating" which is to say that it is a plain, easy to read calendar date rather than "closed or coded dating" that must be deciphered. Another date also commonly seen is the "sell by" date. While not as useful for food storage, it does have importance for day-to-day fresh food purchases.

Because there are few Federal food product dating standards manufacturers use their own to determine acceptable shelf lives. For the most part, these are based upon changes in a product's texture, appearance, taste and cooking qualities. When a food item begins to exhibit signs of aging that would make it unappealing to potential customers it is considered to be at the end of its marketable shelf life. Look for statements such as "use by", "best if used by", "best if used before" or similar wording to find this date. For shelf stable and frozen products it must include both the day, month, and year. These dates are useful for determining how long a product should be retained in storage before it ought to be rotated out. By the time a food begins to undergo taste and appearance degradation the more sensitive nutrient content will have seriously faded so should be rotated out of storage, eaten, then replaced with fresher stock. If the product was properly preserved and not subjected to extreme storage conditions it is not unsafe to use after this date. If there is nothing to replace it with it may be kept still longer, but the palatability and nutritive content will only continue to degrade.

Fresh food items such as meat, milk and eggs use a "sell by" date which simply means that the item should not be purchased beyond that date. Products using this date type are only required to use the day and month. Provided that it was properly transported and stored, an item kept past this date is not unsafe to use, but will begin to exhibit signs of aging that will make it unappealing and should be frozen or consumed shortly thereafter.

NOTE: The shelf life of any food, whether indicated with a "use by" or "sell by" date or found on some chart, is predicated upon assumed storage conditions. If the actual storage conditions are different from these assumptions then the shelf life will naturally vary. As is explained in Section I: Time, Temperature, Moisture, Oxygen and Light, environmental storage conditions have a major impact on the length of time any foodstuff will remain palatable, nutritious and even whether it will remain safe to eat.

As a general rule, when a shelf life is given for a non-refrigerated food, it is for conditions of 70° F in a dark, dry location unless stated otherwise. Be sure to read the fine print on any shelf life chart you may come across so you will know what its values are predicated upon. There are some floating around giving shelf lives of foods in storage temperatures as low as 40° F. At that temperature you would expect to keep your fresh butter, eggs and milk, but few have the ability to keep any significant amount of canned goods in so cool a storage area.

Regardless of what the date or chart may indicate a food subjected to poor storage conditions will become non-nutritious, unpalatable, perhaps unsafe to eat even though its listed time is not yet up. An example of this would be keeping egg salad at room temperature for several hours at a picnic. The eggs may have been laid yesterday, but you are taking your chances if you eat it. Never put blind faith in any date. Always keep in mind that they are predicated on unspoken assumptions. IF THE CONTAINER IS BULGING, MOLDED, FOUL SMELLING OR SPEWS LIQUID WHEN OPENED, THROW IT OUT! But throw it out safely so that children and animals cannot get into it.

Please see Section III: Spoilage for further information.

Updated: 9/18/96; 4/16/97; 7/21/97; 10/20/97; 9/15/98; 11/02/99; 12/01/03

Copyright © 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2003. Alan T. Hagan. All rights reserved.

Excluding contributions attributed to specific individuals or organizations all material in this work is copyrighted to Alan T. Hagan with all rights reserved. This work may be copied and distributed for free as long as the entire text, mine and the contributor's names and this copyright notice remain intact, unless my prior express permission has been obtained. This FAQ may not be distributed for financial gain, included in commercial collections or compilations, or included as a part of the content of any web site without prior, express permission from the author.

DISCLAIMER: Safe and effective food storage requires attention to detail, proper equipment and ingredients. The author makes no warranties and assumes no responsibility for errors or omissions in this text, or damages resulting from the use or misuse of information contained herein. This FAQ is not intended for, nor should it be used in, any commercial food applications.

Placement of or access to this work on this or any other site does not necessarily mean the author espouses or adopts any political, philosophical or metaphysical concepts that may also be expressed wherever this work appears.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgements & Foreword

Section 1 - Shelf Lives

  1. Time, Temperature, Moisture, Oxygen and Light

Section 2 - Foods

  1. Common Storage Foods

A. Grains & legumes

  1. Grains & Grain Products
  2. Legumes
  3. Availability of Grains and Legumes
  4. Storing Grains and Legumes

B. Dairy Products

  1. Dry Milks
  2. Canned Fluid Milks and Creams
  3. Butter
  4. Cheese

C. Eggs

  1. Dry Eggs

D. Sugar, Honey and Other Sweeteners

  1. Granulated Sugars
  2. Honey
  3. Cane Syrups
  4. Corn Syrup
  5. Maple Syrup

E. Fats and Oils

  1. Buying & Storing Oils and Fats
  2. Extending Shelf Life By Adding Anti-Oxidants

F. Cooking Adjuncts

  1. Baking Powder
  2. Baking Soda
  3. Herbs & Spices
  4. Salt
  5. Vinegar
  6. Yeast

G. Infant Formula

  1. Alternatives to Breastfeeding
  2. Selecting and Feeding An Infant Formula
  3. Storing Infant Formulas and Baby Foods

H. MREs - Meals, Ready to Eat

  1. U.S. Military MREs
  2. U.S. Civilian MREs
  3. British/Canadian MREs
  4. Other Self-Heating Ready To Eat Type Products

I. Ration Bars

  1. Ration Bars

Section 3 - Specific Equipment Questions

A. Storage Containers

  1. What is Food Grade Packaging?
  2. Plastic Packaging
  3. Metal Cans
  4. Glass Jars
  5. Mylar Bags
  6. Reusing or Recycling Packaging

B. CO2 and Nitrogen

  1. Dry Ice
  2. Compressed Nitrogen

C. Vacuum Sealing

  1. Vacuum Sealing Considerations

D. Freeze Treating

  1. Freeze Treating

E. Oxygen Absorbers

  1. What Is an Oxygen Absorber?
  2. How Are Oxygen Absorbers Used?

F. Moisture in Packaging and Food Storage

  1. Why Moisture is Important
  2. What Is A Desiccant?
  3. Types of Desiccants
  4. How Do I Use Desiccants?
  5. Where Do I Find Desiccants?

G. Diatomaceous Earth

  1. What is Diatomaceous Earth?
  2. Where Do I Find DE and What Type Should I Buy?
  3. How Do I Use DE in Food Storage?

Section 4 - Spoilage

A. Insect Infestations

  1. Pests of Stored Grains, Legumes and Dry Foodstuffs
  2. Control of Insect Infestations

B. Molds in Foods

  1. Minimizing Molds
  2. Molds in Canned Goods
  3. Molds in Grains and Legumes

C. Bacterial Spoilage

  1. Botulism

D. Enzymatic Action in Food Spoilage

  1. Enzymatic Action

Section 5 - Shelf Lives

A. Food Product Dates

  1. "Best Used By", "Use By" and Other Food Product Dates

B. Closed Dating

  1. Closed Dating Codes Used by Some Food Manufacturers

C. Shelf Lives

  1. Shelf Lives of Some Common Storage Foods

Section 6 - Resources

A. Books

  1. Books

B. Pamphlets

  1. Pamphlets

C. Electronic-online

  1. Information sources
  2. Software sources

D. Organizations

  1. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints - LDS Family Cannery Guidelines

E. Food and Equipment Suppliers

  1. Mail Ordering Storage Foods What You Should Know
  2. Addresses of Suppliers