This story was originally published in December 2020.
It’s tempting to assume that non-perishable food items are safe to eat for an indefinite period of time. But that’s not the case. Even items that are shelf-stable can go bad.
The United States Department of Agriculture requires dating information on retail food that lets the consumer know the dates at which the product will no longer be at peak flavor, when the store should pull it from the shelves and when it has gone past peak quality. These dates are stamped in ink on the food’s packaging.
“These are all dates that are a measure of food quality and not so much on food safety,” said Kathy Savoie, professor and food safety educator with University of Maine Cooperative Extension. “Food safety is a larger issue and depends on many variables.”
Those variables include the type of food, how it is packaged and how it is handled and stored after it’s purchased, she said.
“When foods are unsafe can be an issue of temperature or how it was handled,” Savoie said. “Food safety is not a simple topic and it really depends on so many things.”
Beyond being unappetizing, spoiled or rancid food can harbor bacterias that cause foodborne illnesses or that cause the food to deteriorate to the point it looks, smells and tastes bad and has lost any nutritional value.
Now is the time to check your pantry for these eight non-perishable foods you may have thought couldn’t go bad.
Flour will keep for up to 8 months beyond its best by date. However, whole wheat flour may go rancid in six months because of oils in the grain. Rancid flour will have an unpleasant odor and taste.
Given that yeasts are living organisms it stands to reason they will go bad sooner or later. The older a yeast gets the less active it is and will be slower to rise. Individual packets of yeast remain usable for three months after their printed expiration dates. Any yeast remaining in an open container should be used within six months of opening it. Also, if it’s dark or clumpy, it’s time to throw it out.
Technically maple syrup is one of those things that never really spoils. Unopened containers of it can be stored indefinitely. Once a container of maple syrup is opened, it’s good for about two years before mold will start to grow on the surface of the syrup.
Ketchup is safe to consume long past its best by date. However, four to six months or so after you open it, the liquids in the ketchup will start to separate. That’s also when it starts to lose flavor. In terms of safety, unopened bottles should be tossed out a year after the printed date.
White rice can retain its quality for a few years in your pantry. But brown or wild rice becomes oily and rancid in just six months.
Pickling anything in vinegar is a great way to preserve food, but it won’t last forever. An open jar of pickles should last two years if refrigerated, but after that year they are going to lose that crispy texture. Any longer than a year and they can develop black film or get slimy due to bacterial contamination.
Natural peanut butter is only good for about three months unopened in the pantry and up to six months after being opened if refrigerated. Processed peanut butters can last up to two years unopened and around six months once they are opened.
Unopened packages of nuts can be kept in the pantry for six months after their best by dates and can be frozen for up to two years.
“You really want to minimize your risk by consuming things as close to the best use by date as possible,” Savoie said. “If I came across something in my pantry that had a best use date of 1996 I would not use that product.”
Savoie recommends checking out the website FoodSafety.gov which has information on different types of food, storage recommendations and recall lists.