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Pain in the Pantry

Updated on August 22, 2014

Check Those Expiration Dates--When in doubt, throw it OUT!

What has a skull, two bones, and lurks in your pantry? Hopefully, nothing! But examine the packages carefully. In many kitchens food entirely too old even to be called food anymore is still sitting on the shelves, biding its time.

Some of it has deteriorated only in flavor. Or, the texture may have softened so that the product is mushy. In the worst case, if the can is badly rusted, bacteria may have invaded and literally turned your food into the equivalent of poison! Botulism, anyone?!

There's an amazing lack of knowledge out there. Many smart people naively think that it something has never been opened, it's still good. Not true.

Tell-tale Signs that Food Is Unsafe - How do you know?

Food Past its Shelf Life
Food Past its Shelf Life

Grocery stores often offer special deals on slightly dented cans or slightly damaged packaging, neither of which affect the quality or safety of the food inside. This is an entirely different situation from eating food that has become unsafe from sitting on your shelf too long. The containers in this photo tell the story: The can is badly rusted and the jar was left unrefrigerated (for years) after being opened, resulting in cheese that smells awful and is now inedible.

There are those who feel that staples--oil or flour, for instance--are just as good today as they used to be, no matter how long they've sat there. According to the United States Dept. of Agriculture (USDA), there are several things to look for when deciding whether food is safe to eat. Do NOT eat it if you notice any of the following:

* Leakage

* Broken Seals

* Rust

* Bad Odor

* Bulging can (or a can that spews liquid when opened)

* Evidence of insects (weevils, worms, holes or dust from chewed packaging)

The only exception is for baby formula, which should be subject to all of the above guidelines but should also be discarded immediately if it goes past its expiration date. A child is too precious to take any chances with its health!

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Does Cooking Oil Get Old? - Rancid isn't the half of it!

Oil: 10 years past its expiration!
Oil: 10 years past its expiration!

A friend of mine was cooking what should have been a wonderful meal, similar to Beef Bourgignon, and was browning the meat when my super-sensitive nose picked up a whiff of something not right. That oil has gone bad, I instantly thought. My friend, who smelled nothing amiss, insisted it was my imagination and even went so far as to say that oil doesn't ever go bad.

Aha! He didn't know that he was dealing with the world's greatest food detective--me. My sleuthing instincts were in conflict with my desire to be a good guest, so I waited until later to sneak into his pantry. There I found the culprit, an enormous bottle of oil more than 10 years past its expiration date! Originally nutritious, it had languished on the shelf of his seasonal vacation home, where it was used so seldom that it had lasted ... and lasted.

So how long is oil supposed to last until it is ready to toss? That depends on what kind of oil it is, whether it has ever been opened, how much air is in the bottle, and the storage conditions (temperature, etc.) Not knowing the full story, I simply wrote what I DID know on the bottle with a black marker and hoped that my friend would come to his senses. Oh, and I did snap this picture too.

Oil has an early warning system: Its smell changes when it has become too old to use. Unfortunately, too much of that system relies on how well someone can smell. If one has a cold, for instance, or is taking certain medicines, or is undergoing chemotherapy, the nose may not be up to par, so the warning is ignored. This means that it's even more important to pay attention to expiration dates. And unless you have a restaurant, stop buying the biggest bottle because it's cheaper per ounce; it may go bad before you can use it. Buy smaller bottles more frequently instead.

Why? Oil that is old has changed its chemical make-up. Old molecules have become damaged molecules, whether the cause is age alone, previous use for frying, poor storage conditions such as alternating heat and cold, or even bacteria that invaded the bottle when it was open.

These damaged molecules change to substances that have no place in the human body and do damage over time. They now contain toxic chemicals such as peroxide and aldehydes that may lead to atherosclerosis (plaque on the lining of the arteries). Free radicals also damage DNA and can lead to increased cancer, cardiovascular disease, and other inflammatory diseases. Oils flavored with low-acid aromatic ingredients such as garlic, basil, or hot peppers have an additional danger: Botulism can be caused by the deterioration of the added ingredients (these oils should always be refrigerated and used promptly, once open).

How long oil lasts also depends on what kind it is and whether it has been opened. Unopened canola oil lasts 2 years, while opened canola oil needs replacing after about a year. Sesame oil, though, lasts 1 year unopened but only 2-3 months if opened. Use it quickly! The best choice for lasting a long time (whether opened or not) is olive oil.

Extend the length of time oil lasts by keeping it in a dark pantry before opening and in the refrigerator afterwards. Cool temperatures may thicken the oil or make it cloudy. Warm it at room temperature for a few minutes before using, and it will return to normal.

When Does Oil Spoil?

For a more complete list of cooking oils and how long they last, go to: http://www.eatbydate.com/other/condiments/how-long-does-oil-last/

Nix That Old Mix

"Dry" Does Not Mean "Keep Forever"

The main ingredient in most dry food (cereal, breadcrumbs, cookies, crackers) or mixes (cornbread, batter, pancake, etc.) is some type of grain. Staples such as flour, cornmeal, grits, quinoa, and others are made entirely of grain, ground to a fine consistency. While they are considered "dry foods," they all have some form of moisture in them. They are all affected by humidity as well--and kitchens have plenty of humid air.

Crisp snack-type foods get soggy when exposed to humidity, and most are thrown away at that point. But what does moisture do to products like flour or meal, or to products that contain them? Over time, it creates an environment where tiny insect eggs will hatch, resulting in weevils, mealy worms, and other critters.

Many people assume that these bugs get into the products somehow after we buy them, and that can be true. It's more likely, though, that the eggs have been there all along.

Grains are a natural product, grown in fields, and it is impossible to completely eliminate every trace of insects. Their eggs are so tiny that some of them survive, despite the food manufacturer's best practices. If they hatch, they grow into adults, laying more eggs, and the cycle continues. The longer you keep dry staples on hand, the more chance there is of this happening.

Look for tiny holes in cardboard boxes, suspicious dust on the shelf, visible insects moving around, and black specks that rise to the surface when you mix the product with liquid (especially hot water). All of these are signs that critters have invaded.

Most prepared dry foods and mixes also contain some form of oil. Just because it's blended in doesn't keep oil from aging (or oxidizing from exposure to air), If the mix smells even slightly rancid, that's an instant tip-off that the oil has oxidized and the mix is old. You might want to start a new routine; give any products you are cooking the "sniff" test to see if you detect an off-smell. If you do, then look at the date and respond accordingly.

Keeping dry foods away from air prolongs their life, so any barrier you can create helps. Store dry foods in glass or hard plastic containers with air-tight lids for best results. Or, put the original box inside a heavy-duty plastic bag with a zipper closure. In areas with exceptionally warm and humid air, dry goods should be placed in air-tight plastic bags and stored in the refrigerator as well.

Check Spices for Weevils Too

If weevils have invaded, be ruthless in throwing out their favorite foods. Wipe down and disinfect the pantry shelves, especially the cracks next to the walls, to make sure the insects are gone. Be sure to check your spices too. Old paprika and chili powder are often part of the problem.

Interested in Learning More? - Try these links!

Don't just take it from me. There are some official sources out there who are very concerned about that rusted can of peas on your shelf. And also that oil you've been saving so long. Read and heed!

OK ... it's time to 'fess up. You're among friends here, and we promise we won't snicker. But you need to promise that you'll throw that old food out right away. No matter how attached you've become, or how much you think you might use it "someday," just go ahead and toss it. When it's time, it's time!

True Confession Comments - What was the oldest thing you found in your pantry?

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    • Miracle Magnolia profile image
      Author

      Miracle Magnolia 3 years ago from Atlanta, GA

      @SusanDeppner: Susan, I remember my grandmother transferring her cereal to a glass container with a screw-on top when I was a child. At the time I thought she was silly for doing it, but now I know that the glass kept it far fresher than its original box would have done. Stale cereal is not my favorite breakfast treat, and I'll bet it isn't yours either!

    • SusanDeppner profile image

      Susan Deppner 3 years ago from Arkansas USA

      I've found very old breakfast cereal in the pantry in the past. I try to keep an eye on what I have and use it in time, but I do appreciate these tips and the reminder to check my shelves. There is that one spot... :)