Last year, millions of shoppers raided grocery store shelves to stock up on canned goods and other food essentials as COVID fears gripped the nation
But once the pandemic passes, a question will loom: How long will all that stored food last?
Foods can stay safe a long time. But their quality may diminish as the years roll on, says Carrie Dennett, a Pacific Northwest-based registered dietitian nutritionist and owner of Nutrition By Carrie.
“How you store canned and dried goods will help extend how long they remain tasty and nutritious,” Dennett says.
How long do canned goods last?
Commercially canned foods are safe because of tightly controlled conditions in the canning process. Unopened canned goods usually stay at top quality for three to five years when stored at room temperature, Dennett says.
“They generally remain safe to eat for long after that, as long as the cans haven’t been damaged or become heavily rusted, and they haven’t been exposed to temperatures below freezing or above 100 degrees Fahrenheit,” she says.
Dennett points out that federal regulations don’t require product dating labels — such as “best by” or “use by” dates — for anything other than infant formula. And those dates tell you nothing about how long the food remains safe to eat.
“When you see these dates on other foods, it’s about encouraging us to use the product while it’s at peak quality, nothing more,” she says.
She notes that taste and nutritional quality eventually will degrade for many canned goods, with the type of food and how it’s stored determining the speed of the decline.
In some cases, natural chemicals in a food — especially in high-acid foods like tomatoes — can react with the can.
“This sounds scary, but it really isn’t a safety issue,” Dennett says. “However, it does mean that over several years, the food inside the can will probably experience changes to taste and texture and lose some of its nutritional value.”
How long do dry goods last?
Foods like cereals and crackers can absorb moisture from the air and lose their crispy texture, making them less appealing.
“I’ve had boxed dry cereals smell ‘off’ when they’ve been open too long, especially if they contain nuts or whole grains,” Dennett says.
However, storage conditions make a big difference in keeping dry goods viable.
“Nuts, whole grains and whole grain flour will keep much longer in the freezer than they will in your pantry,” Dennett says. “That’s because the healthful oils in nuts and whole grains are delicate and can break down and become rancid when stored too long at room temperature.”
She notes that such breakdown will happen even faster if these foods are stored where they are exposed to light, heat or air. The rancidity isn’t immediately harmful. “It’s not going to cause a case of food poisoning,” Dennett says
However, eating rancid oils isn’t good for you because the foods have “essentially become the opposite of antioxidant,” she says.
Pasta stored unopened — or transferred to an air-tight container — generally lasts about three years before you see any signs of color or texture changes.
Dried beans retain good quality for about three to five years, especially if they are packaged well.
“After that, the main issue people usually experience is that they take longer to cook, because they’ve essentially become more dried,” Dennett says. “As long as there’s no off odor or appearance, or signs of mold or insects, then they are fine to use.”
Making pantry foods last longer
Proper storage is the key to extending the life your pantry items, Dennett says.
“Ideally, store these foods in a dark, dry pantry with relatively stable temperatures,” Dennett says.
She recommends avoiding storing foods in the following places:
- Next to or above the stove
- Under the sink
- In a damp basement
- In the garage
Dennett notes that many people who have stocked up on canned and dry goods during the pandemic are keeping foods in the garage. If you are among these shoppers, Dennett urges you to rotate the food into storage inside your home as soon as possible.
“Be cautious if you garage gets very hot in the summer,” she says. “Temperatures over 100 degrees Fahrenheit are not kind to canned goods.”
The key to making pantry foods last is to be organized, Dennett says: “Have a system for rotating your pantry goods so that older items get used first.”