Given that there are no federal laws pertaining to expiration dates on food (with the exception of baby food), knowing whether something is actually still safe to eat can be a game of chance. However, there are some good rules of thumb you can use to determine the safety of food, and measures that can maximize a food item’s shelf life.
1. Fresh Meat and Produce
Meat products usually expire within a week, unless frozen or otherwise treated for preservation. Fruits will last for about a week or so before they bruise and/or soften and eventually begin to rot.
To extend the life of fruits, ensure that they are being stored properly, as there are many common misconceptions on this front. For example, it is often thought that tomatoes should be refrigerated, while they actually last the longest at room temperature (as well as better retaining their flavor).
Refrigerated vegetables often last slightly longer than fruits, as long as they are refrigerated at the correct temperature (freezing can do as much damage as exposure to heat). Vegetables commonly stored at room temperature, especially root vegetables or tubers, can last more than two weeks if kept in a dry, slightly cool area.
2. Canned Foods
Canned foods are well known for their longevity, however, there are some nuances that are important to know. More acidic canned goods, such as tomatoes, can remain edible up to a year and a half after canning. Meanwhile, other canned foods are often still good for up to five years after canning. This is often easier to keep track of in the case of store-bought canned products, compared to those canned at home, due to the consistent factory process of canning and expiration date labeling.
Again, however, these expiration dates are not always reliable. They are more so for the benefit of quality control and product stocking in stores, rather than a precise reflection of when the item will go “bad.” Store canned foods in a secure, cool area, and do not eat the product if the can has warped or expanded, or if the opened can releases foam.
3. Dried Foods
As with canned foods, dried foods have a reputation for long shelf lives, and also for at-home preparation. This makes them both more and less reliable as a long-lived food item. Dehydrated fruits and vegetables, in particular, can last up to five years or longer if kept dry at a mild temperature, away from areas that can be accessed by insects or vermin.
4. Drinks and Liquids
Liquids like chicken stock and juice can last anywhere from a few days to a few months, depending on their preparation and method of storage. Cans and other sealed containers will last significantly longer.
Liquor and wine, on the other hand, can last for years if stored properly. In fact, there have been multiple accounts of wine bottles retrieved from sunken ships that were found to still be drinkable after a century or more.
5. Longest Lasting Foods
As already discussed, dried and canned foods tend to last for a long time. This is why food drives by non-profit organizations tend to particularly encourage the donation of canned products. However, some foods are prepared specifically to withstand long stretches of time.
Astronauts and military personnel both have need of food that is easily stored and will not expire for years. MREs will usually stay good for a minimum of five years when stored properly. However, MREs are designed to withstand harsh conditions and will remain ingestible for at least a month even when stored at 120 degrees Fahrenheit.
6. How to Make Food Last Longer
Heat and moisture are breeding grounds for bacteria. As such, it is generally a good rule of thumb that foods will have a longer shelf life when tightly sealed, and kept cool and dry. In some cases, such as when storing meats, it may be necessary to refrigerate or even freeze the product, but not all foods will thaw to the same condition they were frozen in. For food intended to be stored at room temperature, it is generally not a good idea to keep it at more than 70 degrees Fahrenheit. Methods such as salting and pickling have also been used by humans for millennia in order to extend the shelf life of foods. Although these methods certainly still work, humans are creatures of innovation. In the modern-day, a climate-controlled storage unit can be a great alternative to the cellars of yesteryear. These are more secure to prevent intervention from vermin and are easier to manage in terms of temperature and humidity.