Having lived through 2 major earthquakes while growing up in California, disaster drills were regularly practiced at schools. Our school often invited experts on emergency preparedness to teach us how to survive a natural disaster. They taught us the importance of having an emergency prep kit, consisting of first aid and hygiene items, and a supply of water and non-perishable food. And that was my first encounter with the idea that some food can last almost indefinitely.
The Problem with Date Labelling of Foods
Many foods have expiry dates printed on them. Yet many of these foods can last beyond their expiry date, and some are even considered to be non-perishable. Non-perishable foods usually fall into 2 categories – foods that are shelf-stable and foods that are frozen.
Labels can be very misleading. Just because a product has a date on it doesn’t mean it will make you sick if you eat it beyond that date. Labels are also quite confusing. Some have an “expiry date”, while others have a “use by”, “sell by” or “best before” date, all of which seem to imply very different things. And some foods, such as fresh foods, may not have any dates on them, but clearly are perishable.
As someone who once worked in the food manufacturing industry, I know that packaging and storage conditions significantly affect a food’s shelf stability, safety, and quality. I also know that there are government agency reporting requirements that products must follow, and that companies are always concerned with lawsuits. There’s also a slight conflict of interest, as companies may desire that you discard outdated products and replace them with newer products.
As a result of all these factors, the dates used are often on the conservative side, and mostly reflect the quality of the food rather than its safety. This means that for many products, it still might be safe to consume past the date on the label. A USDA (US Department of Agriculture) spokesperson even said in a blog video that some foods with a “sell by” date could still be good in your pantry for another 12 or 18 months.
And on AVA’s Guide to Food Labelling, it states that the “expiry date refers to the date after which the food may not retain its normal nature and quality.” The AVA definition does not explicitly mention safety.
Foods that are Shelf-Stable
So what kind of foods did I keep in my emergency earthquake kit? The kit had loads of MREs (Meal, Ready-to-Eat), the kinds you get from military supply shops. There were also freeze-dried foods (which we used to call “astronaut food”). I also had a couple of food bars, but unlike the tasty fruit or cereal bars, these were mostly made up of high calorie shortening (yuck!). Lastly, I kept some canned foods along with a can opener.
All these foods last a very long time, and none of them require refrigeration. How long could they last? At minimum, 5 years. But if kept at optimal storage conditions (i.e., a cool, dry, and dark place) with perfectly in-tact packaging, they can last 3+ decades.
History tells us that people in ancient Greece and Rome stockpiled jars of olive oil for decades to sell during their senior years. With the convenience of modern living and refrigeration, we’ve forgotten some ancient wisdom about food preservation. Why risk eating “old” food (as determined by the manufacturer) when you can just grab something new off the grocery store shelf?
According to this AOL Lifestyle article, here are 19 foods that last forever (under optimum storage conditions):
- Rice, sealed in an airtight container
- Pemmican (lean meat dried and preserved in rendered fat)
- Pure Vanilla Extract
- Dried beans, sealed in an airtight opaque container
- Corn Starch
- Corn Syrup
- Hardtack Biscuits
- Powdered or UHT Milk
- Ramen Noodles
- Maple Syrup
- Canned Foods
- Peanut Butter
- Soy Sauce
Foods that are Frozen
I didn’t keep any frozen foods in my earthquake kit for obvious reasons. But many frozen foods, if kept frozen, can last indefinitely. Though safe to eat, these foods will likely experience a deterioration of quality, due to the freeze-thaw cycling of modern freezer compartments or due to air reaching the food and oxidising it. But any part of the frozen food that experience oxidisation, or “freezer burn”, can be trimmed off. You don’t have to toss away the entire thing.
There are some perishable foods that basically become non-perishable once they’re properly stored in the freezer. Bread is a good example of this. My former uni flatmate would buy a ton of “reduced to clear” bread and stockpile them in the freezer. These days, I like to freeze fruit that I buy from my friendly neighbourhood fruit hawker, who sells me all his ugly and bruised fruits at steep discounts. I make smoothies with them.
There are some rare microorganisms that can survive and grow in subfreezing temperatures, but the vast majority of them cannot, especially below -3°C.
Some General Guidelines
Foods are made to last if they are in environments with little or no water content, and especially when preservatives are used. All canned foods are packaged under aseptic (sterile) conditions and so long as the integrity of the can is in-tact (not dented, rusted, swollen, or bulging), these foods are generally safe from harmful microorganisms. Of course, as a rule of thumb, you should always do a smell and taste test if the food is much older than the expiry date.
The same goes for peanut butter, rice, MREs, and other non-perishable foods. Always use common sense, which literally is your sense of smell, taste, touch, and sight.
The optimal storage conditions for shelf-stable foods are places where it’s “cool, dark and dry”. Though our local climate makes this a bit challenging, the food items can still keep pretty well as long as you store it in a place where there’s not a lot of temperature fluctuation, such as next to the stove, or excessive dampness.
The optimal storage conditions for frozen foods is a standalone freezer that does not have a thaw cycle. However, such freezers are not as energy efficient, and for most households, they are an unnecessary expense. Instead, you can achieve pretty good preservation of frozen foods by storing them in airtight freezer bags in a standard freezer. Some people recommend wrapping these bags in aluminum foil for an additional layer of protection.
Because many stores sell near-expiry items at steep discounts, buying these foods (especially with bulk dicounts) can save you a lot of money. And during times of emergencies, like during the California earthquakes, they can also save your life.