Groceries that could outlive you; groceries that could keep you alive

Suppose you're middle-aged now.  Suppose the shelf-life of some of your food is  60 years. Your food might still look and taste good when your descendants feast on it.  Not all food can last that long, but, when properly processed and stored, can last for decades.  


When I began writing a website about shelf life, I didn't know that was possible.  Now I realize that campers and mountain climbers may use this type of food, as well as people that worry about weather emergencies or terrorism attacks. Some folks feel more secure if their family has meals on hand for any catastrophe which can cut off  their food supply, be it weather-related power-outages, war,  or some totally unexpected  event that severely delays food delivery. 


Food scientist Dr.  Catherine Cutter also points out that food insecurity is another reason customers may want to purchase  long-term foods.  Food is sometimes bought to be stored away for a time when money is not available to purchase it. Dr. Cutter says, "The decisions that people make to achieve food security are pretty compelling."


Sure, you already have kitchen products that may last a year, two or even longer, such as spices, salt,  commercially-canned goods.  But what  we're talking about here far exceeds a few years. Consider, for example, dehydrated food you can take along on your space flight to Mars. Maybe you're not planning on taking that trip this summer, but what seems extreme now may be just another interesting tourist attraction in the not-too-distant future.  Freeze-dried or dehydrated foods are also great for week-long outdoor adventures such as hiking, boating, or mountain climbing.  Foods that require no refrigeration and are light-weight are excellent for these outings.


Among the companies that market long-term emergency food  is this one:  http:/ Whether you're looking for food that lasts 72 days or 25 years,  this company can supply it.  Shelf Life Advice asked our Advisory Board scientists to tell us more about how long-term food storage is achieved and whether it's palatable, so let's launch into what they said.  You may be surprised.




Food scientist Dr. Clair Hicks:


"Long-term foods can be quite good, assuming that they were packaged and stored correctly.  When I was in the army I tasted some canned peas packed as C-rations that were over 20 years old and they were very acceptable.  Some of the military packs will last for that period if they are stored at moderate temperatures.


"Long-term foods have been sold by a number of companies for many years; some are a lot better than others.  Low-moisture grains packed in metal cans under nitrogen are good for more than 40 years.  I have eaten bread manufactured from 40-year-old wheat that was as acceptable as bread made from today's wheat.  Many other dried foods can have a similar shelf life."


Food process engineer Dr. Timothy Bowser:


"I have some experience with long-term food storage, and I highly recommend these types of foods. I work with many groups that are interested in long-term food storage or making/packaging food for long-term storage. This is not possible with all foods, but many can be very stable when completely dehydrated. High-fat foods normally do not store well over long periods because the fat may become rancid, even when oxygen and moisture are excluded.  Stabilized fats, such as hydrogenated vegetable fat, may last many years. The best foods for long-term storage contain mostly carbohydrates, protein, and ash (fiber)."




Dr. Hicks:


"The keys to prolonged shelf life are very low oxygen levels, prevention of chemical reactions, and moderate temperatures.  The a rule of thumb is that for every 10°C increase in temperature, shelf life will decrease 2X.  Much of this gain has to do with superior packaging.  If I can remove the oxygen and keep it out, then I can prevent oxidation of the food.  Generally, oxidation is a major drawback to long- term foods. 


"Normally, microbial growth can be stopped with a number of technologies, so that leaves chemical reactions, which cause the most deterioration. If I select packaging and processes that control the chemical reactions, I can achieve extreme shelf life. 


"About 35 years ago, American Can Company developed a very expensive package for  military use and prolonged space flight. It allowed foods to be kept in excess of 40 years.  Some of this technology is still used in various forms of packaging.  Certainly, all of our chips  and some cookies  are packaged in barrier packaging with nitrogen atmospheres.  This can give up to 18 months of shelf life.  When oxygen scavenging technologies are added,  several years of shelf life can be added.  The big problem is keeping oxygen from diffusing through the seals. Foods being transported to Mars would need a system that actively scavenges oxygen for more than, say, 60 years. This technology is available, but it's expensive.


"As moisture in food increases, chemical reactions increase and shelf life decreases; therefore, foods with the longest shelf life are dried foods and grains.  Certainly, canned foods can exceed 20 years, but this requires really good enamels to prevent chemical reactions, both on the interior as well as the exterior of the can."


Dr. Bowser:


"Vacuum packaging with materials that are excellent barriers to light, moisture, and vapors is a very common solution. Keeping some foods that are packaged and prepared for extended shelf-life in your pantry can be a good way to be prepared for emergencies. This should not be much trouble or expense, especially if you select foods that you normally prepare, like dried grains, beans, flours and even some canned foods. There really is no need for most people to store food for periods longer than several years if the food you purchase is food that you like and plan to eat. Just keep extra on hand and replace it after it is consumed using the first-in, first-out rule."




Emphatically YES! Many newlyweds freeze a piece of their wedding cake to share on their first anniversary. At my son and daughter-in-law's  first anniversary party, we ate a chunk of their wedding cake, and it tasted as good as it did at the wedding.  As I recall, it had been double-wrapped in both a freezer bag and in aluminum foil.


Those who aspire to succeed in preserving food long-term are bound to be inspired by John Johnson-Dunlop.  Many years ago, when he was preparing for a canoe trip with his Boy Scout troop, he was  turned off by the high prices of dehydrated foods, so he decided to make his own meals for his boys.  He bought a home dehydrator, experimented a bit, and created  breakfasts,  lunches, and dinners  for the 8 people on the trip.  His meals included beef stew, jambalaya, and spaghetti.  Now, he gives classes in preserving food by freeze-drying, dehydrating, and freezing.


Of course, the main purpose of home canning is to preserve the taste of fruits and vegetables during their peak season to enjoy them off-season.  Johnson-Dunlop claims that his methods are easier than canning.


By purchasing a home dehydrator, one can preserve some foods for even longer  than by just freezing.  Frozen products, if they were not contaminated when frozen, will be  safe to  eat when safely defrosted.  However, the  taste and texture may have deteriorated with time.  By the second anniversary, that wedding cake may not be very good. It may taste stale. Of course, the type of wedding cake--type of frosting and filling, for example--has an effect upon its long-term durability. It's probably a good idea to ask the bakery before deciding on long-term freezing for wedding cake.


Creating safe, tasty food that can be eaten a week or a year later requires knowing something about  how to avoid food contamination.  Johnson-Dunlop mentions the acronym FAT TOM.  It stands for the six conditions  required for the growth of  pathogens that can cause food-borne illness.  They are food, acidity, time, temperature, oxygen, and moisture. 


To learn more about freeze-drying food, go to Watch the videos and/or download the booklet Free Guide to Freeze-Drying.  The website mentions that, by the  methods described, food can be preserved for up to 25 years.


Before rushing out to buy a dehydrator, go online and read some articles about the advantages and disadvantages of using dehydrated food. (Look at the articles on  Obviously, when you  take along dehydrated meals to heat on your camping trip, you'll need access to potable water to use them. Also, Johnson-Dunlop says that some foods taste better if preserved by canning rather than freeze-dried.


The U.S. government deserves credit for developing advancements in foods that can be dehydrated and then reconstituted with hot water.  Space flights, of course, created a need for these advancements. To learn more about the  not-very tasty stuff in tubes that early astronauts ate and the later improvements NASA was able to make to their meals, go to✓ ("Space Food and Nutrition").




Timothy J. Bowser, Ph.D. , Oklahoma State University, Dept. of Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering


Catherine Nettles Cutter, Ph.D. , Pennsylvania State University, Department of Food Science


Clair L. Hicks, Ph.D., University of Kentucky, Dept. of Animal and Food Sciences


The Beacon-News, Living section, Suburban News page, "Cook shares techniques for food preservation.


Links to additional sources are in the article.


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