Mustard and a Money-Saving Message

Many people who are concerned about food contamination tell me that they throw out everything in their fridge that's one week past the expiration (or "best by") date.  Let me first reiterate this important point:  in general, expiration dates (or /sell by/use by/best by dates)  are NOT about safety; they are about quality.


Let's consider an extreme example of a product that can long outlast its expiration date.  Quite recently, I noticed that the mustard my husband was about to put on the hot dog I served him contained the following ominous message: "Best By Feb. 02, 2016."  "So what?" my husband said. "Looks fine."  Of course,  good looks do not always mean a product is safe to consume, so I read the ingredients, which were basically mustard seeds, vinegar (a great preservative) water, turmeric and a few other spices.  I concluded that a dab of this stuff was unlikely to kill anyone, so I allowed my husband to enjoy his properly dressed hot dog.


 Then I called the customer service line to be sure I hadn't made a bad decision.  Here's what a friendly, helpful, reassuring man told me: "Mustard is a simple product.  It's vinegar plus a few spices.  It doesn't grow mold or bacteria.  There are no health risks."  [Editor's note:  Here's a quote and paraphrase from a previous Shelf Life Advice  article: "..spices, powders, and other ingredients contained in mustard are potential sources of E. coli and salmonella."  Sounds scary, but the article goes on to say that, because of its natural acidity, mustard is highly resistant to spoilage.  In addition, spices and similar ingredients are irradiated before being shipped, so they're unlikely to reach a manufacturer contaminated. Wikipedia is also reassuring:  "Mustard can last indefinitely without becoming inedible or harmful though it may dry out, lose flavor, or brown from oxidation."


The worst enemy of quality is time.  I was told that if the color had deteriorated, the flavor probably had, too. The taste of the mustard seed, turmeric, paprika, and garlic would likely diminish.  Texture can also deteriorate with the passage of time. 


All these factors considered, I soon purchased an updated twin and discarded my old mustard. Perhaps some readers would scold me for being wasteful.  After all, the second customer service person I talked to said if I kept the product for 5-10 years, it would still not be a health hazard, but it might not taste very good.   But we want our mustard to taste good.  With that goal in mind, many sources recommend tossing mustard when it's 2 years old, so I think I can defend my action.  But my husband stated emphatically that our old mustard tasted fine although it had probably been opened in 2014 or 2015.


Some additional info about mustard that you may find useful:


1) As you probably know, not all mustard is yellow.  The color ranges from sunny yellow to dark brown depending upon the type.  If your originally bright yellow mustard turns dark, it's time to dump it for a younger replacement.


2) The mustard my husband and I routinely use on our frankfurters is bright yellow.  No, it isn't dye that creates the sunny color. French's classic mustard contains no dyes.  The color comes mostly from turmeric and the type of mustard seeds used.


3)  It's not necessary but better to store your mustard in the fridge. Here's what Shelf  Life Advice learned about keeping mustard and ketchup in the fridge and in the pantry.


                                              Pantry                   Fridge

Ketchup, opened

1 month

8-12 months

Ketchup, unopened

1 year

- -

Mustard, opened

8-12 months

8-12 months

Mustard, unopened

2 years

- -


The numbers above come from the University of Virginia, Virginia Cooperative Extension. Remember that the time limits refer to quality, not safety, and these are conservative compared to the French's customer service line.


Note: If mustard is stored unrefrigerated for a long time, it may develop a bitter taste, according to Wikipedia.


Here's the lesson you can take away from this article: don't discard food on the basis of the "best by" date, especially a recent one.  Look at and smell the product,  but DON'T TASTE a product you suspect might be contaminated.  That's risky, and your taste buds are not a reliable judge of contamination anyway. Consult Shelf Life Advice  (or another reliable online source) for a general idea of how long various products remain safe to eat.  If you're still in doubt about whether a packaged product is safe to consume or not, call the customer service number on the packaging.  If it's a perishable item such as (raw chicken or sliced cheese from a supermarket deli department) call the store you purchased it from for shelf life info.


When deciding what to keep and what to toss, let safety issues guide you, not your budget.  For example,  don't keep swollen, leaky,  or deeply dented cans.  They could be harboring dangerous pathogens.   Moreover, very old cans could explode and mess up your cabinet quite a bit.   High-acid commercially canned goods (for example, tomato products or fruit)  should be safe and tasty for 18 months., low-acid foods for 2-5 years.  But anything that smells bad or squirts out liquid when opened, should be discarded immediately.  Home-canned goods should be consumed within a year. 


To read more about foods that can be consumed after the expiration date,  check out these


 Shelf Life Advice articles:

Do Food Product Dates Make Consumers Safer or Just Poorer?

"It Says Use By Tomorrow, But You Don't Have to"


Source(s):  "Is It  on Your Grocer's Shelves?"—-it-your-grocer’s-shelves "Is there any risk of illness from putting ketchup or mustard on my  sandwich?"


Ask Karen.  "How long can you keep canned goods?"  "Mustard (condiment)"


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