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Serving up details on shelf life and food dates


September 18, 2011
For The Leader Herald

I quickly peek out of the window. It doesn't look good. Rain today, rain yesterday, rain tomorrow. Oh busboy. I used to love rainy days to settle, relax, and regroup. But enough is enough. I have been reading the papers, looking at the videos of Tropical Storm Irene's furry. What is going on?

Last week, I questioned whether one should store food "for a rainy day." In light of Irene and other disasters worldwide, my recommendation was to be prepared for an emergency, but be prepared in moderation: Have an emergency kit and emergency water; store food for a week but no more than three months; take your time and have a plan before spending a lot of money; work with what you have.

Statistics show 80 percent of the daily use of food comes from 20 percent of our stored items or inventory. The other 80 percent deteriorates or gets forgotten. Good to know before making a storage plan.

I also mentioned I would take look at shelf life so you can build up a safe supply, using what you normally buy and not spend a lot.

I need to start with some basic information. Every food stored has a shelf life - whether marked or not, fresh or packaged, refrigerated or dry - which determines how long you can keep it. Even leftovers have a shelf life. (I'll serve you more information on that at a later date.)

Shelf life is the length of time a food lasts before it becomes unsuitable for sale, use or consumption. Shelf life also is the overall term we use, especially in the restaurant industry, to refer to how long to keep a food product. All foods have a shelf life even if they are opened or do not have a date on them. Bananas have a shelf life of 4 to 5 days. An unopened box of raisins will have a shelf life of up to a year; an opened box has a shelf life of one month.

Shelf lives may be printed on the food article or listed in food life recommendation charts. There are many charts available, especially for refrigerated items. I like this simple chart: From experience, most of us know the shelf life of items we use frequently.

Shelf life is influenced by several factors: the nature of the food produce, the amount of moisture in the product, exposure to light , the packaging of the product, the amount of heat, light and humidity in storage, and contamination. Good to know.

"Best before date," "best if used by" or "freshness date" are similar to shelf life, but usually refers to the quality of the product only. It is safe to use the product after these dates, but the quality, taste, texture or nutritional value of the product begins to deteriorate. These dates are advisory dates. For example, an unopened box of graham crackers has an approximate shelf life of six months. After 6 months, the food is perfectly safe to eat, but it will begin to go stale. If the box is opened or stored in a wet area then that date is considerably altered.

"Expiration date" or "use by" is a date that refers to food safety. Expiration date is the date after which the food cannot be used. These dates refer to possible severe deterioration, rotting or contamination. Tampering with this date is illegal in this county.

"Sell by" or "display until" refers to the date on which the store can no longer sell the product. This is not a use-by date. Sell-by dates assume the customer will keep the product for a given period of time at home. Sell-by dates keep the customer from purchasing a food that will deteriorate as soon as they get it home. Many people think these dates are use-by dates and throw the food out after that date. These dates are intended to help rotate the freshness of the stock in stores and restaurants.

All these printed dates and shelf life recommendations assume the food is kept in the recommended conditions. Dates on refrigerated items are expected to be kept in the refrigerator.

My grandson left an open container of milk on the counter and when I began to throw it out, he said, "the date is still good." A young friend had the power off in her house for three days, but said she was able to keep most of it because the dates were still good.

Inversely, it is estimated that one third of all food thrown out is thrown out while it is still acceptable. I have issues with this in my house. My son threw out a perfectly good carton of milk because it was "past the date." It was a sell by date.

Rain, rain goes away?- I think I'll read labels this soggy day.




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