- Meat and Poultry
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- Ice Cream
- Dairy Spreads
- Fruit, Fruit Products
- Sauces, Dressing, and Dips
- Condiments, Herbs & Spices, Spreads
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- Prepared Foods
- Bakery Goods and Sweets
- Grains, Pasta, and Cereal
- FAQs on Bacteria
- What are bacteria?
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- Can I assume that if food smells bad its unsafe to eat and if it smells ok that it is safe to eat?
- How dangerous is botulism?
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- How many types of bacteria are there?
- What foods are likely to be contaminated by listeria?
- What foods can give a person a staph infection?
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- Why do some bacteria make people sick?
- Why does refrigeration keep bacteria from multiplying?
- Can I avoid all contact with bacteria if I’m careful?
- How Many Bacteria Does It Take to Cause Illness?
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- Are Ceramic and Enamel Cookware Safe and Practical?
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- Does Using Aluminum Cookware Increase the Chances of Developing Alzheimer’s Disease?
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- Is the New Silicone Rubberized Cookware Safe?
- Nonstick Cookware: Is it Dangerous?
- What Brands of Cookware are Recommended by Experts?
- What Features Should I Look for When Selecting Cookware?
- What Should I Know about Selecting and Using Aluminum Cookware?
- FAQs about Definitions
- Exactly what is meant by the phrase perishable food?
- Defining Some Current Language about Food
- What Does the Word “Foodie” Mean? It Depends Who(m) You Ask
- What do “sell by,” “best by/before,” “use by” and “expiration” mean?
- What does the term shelf life mean?
- What's in Our Food? Maybe Processing Aids, Maybe not
- “Fresh,” “Natural,” “Processed”—What Do These Words Mean?
- FAQs on Dropped Food
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- Exactly what defines a farmers’ market?
- Farmers' Markets: Why They're So Popular; How to Find One Near Your Home
- How should I handle produce at home?
- What foods are sold with restrictions at a farmers’ market?
- What should I bring to the farmers’ market?
- What shouldn’t I do or eat at a farmers’ market?
- What signs indicate a sanitary farmers’ market?
- What time of day is it best to go to a farmers’ market?
- FAQs on Food-borne Illness and Mishandling of Food
- About how many cases of food-borne illness occur in the U.S. each year?
- Answer Key to “How Much Do You Know about Safe Handling of Food?”
- How Much Do You Know about Safe Handling of Food?
- I Left It Out Too Long! Can I Still Eat It?
- Should Your Grocery Card Track Food-Borne Illnesses?
- Sudden, Awful Intestinal Distress--Is it the Flu or a Foodborne Illness--or Both?
- What YOU Can Do to Avoid Food-borne Illness
- What does the phrase food-borne illness refer to?
- FAQs on Food Product Dating
- Are stores required, by law, to remove outdated items from their shelves?
- Do most consumers actually pay attention to the dating on foods?
- Does the “use by” date matter once the product is frozen?
- Is information on food longevity and safety available by phone?
- What are expiration dates?
- What do the terms closed dating and open dating mean?
- What if there is no date on a product, and I don’t remember if I bought it a month ago or ten years ago?
- What should consumers know about food product dating?
- When Did You Buy It? When Did You Open It?
- Who establishes these product dates?
- Who requires and regulates dating on foods?
- Why do “best by” and “use by” dates sometimes seem conservative?
- FAQs on Food Safety
- "Is It Safe To….?" FAQs Answered by our Advisory Board
- FAQs about Ground Beef, Seasonings, Olive Oil, Lemon Wedges, and Fish
- FAQs about Mushrooms: Are they Very Dirty or Very Clean?
- FAQs about Soft Cheeses--What's Safe, What Isn't
- FAQs on Food Safety and Nutrition
- FAQs on Raw Fruits and Veggies—the Answers Can Protect Your Wallet and Your Health
- Food/Meat Thermometers—What You Need to Know
- How Long Should Cheese Be Aged? Will the Rules Be Changed?
- How Long Will They REALLY Last? Part I: Non-perishables
- How Long Will They REALLY last? Part II: Perishables
- Imported Foods—What’s Safe, What’s Risky?
- Is It Safe? Is It Nutritious? More Survey Answers from Scientists
- Is It Time to Switch to Pasteurized Eggs?
- Is the Food Safety Modernization Act Making Our Food Supply Safer?
- More FAQs about Minimum Safe Cooking Temperatures: Pork and Other Perishables
- Sushi: Why Such a Short Shelf Life?
- Winter Food Storage—Can I leave It in the Car or in the Garage?
- Would You—Should You—Do You--Eat Irradiated Food?
- FAQs on Food Wrapping
- Are any plastic wraps or containers really “microwave safe”?
- Are some plastic wraps more effective than others?
- Can I refrigerate meat and poultry in its store wrapping?
- Can I use plastic freezer bags to store produce in the fridge?
- Can chemicals leach unto food from plastic wrap or containers?
- Do coated plastic bags really help produce last longer?
- Does aluminum foil give foods a metallic taste?
- Does exposure to aluminum cause Alzheimer’s disease?
- Everything You Need to Know about Wrapping Food Right
- How should fruits be wrapped before refrigeration?
- Is it safe to use aluminum foil in a microwave oven?
- Should I wrap raw vegetables loosely or tightly before refrigerating?
- What are some advantages and disadvantages of aluminum foil?
- What produce needs to be wrapped before refrigerating?
- What’s better for wrapping food—plastic or aluminum foil?
- Why does foil sometimes darken, discolor, and leave black specks on food?
- Will a foil cover help keep foods on the table hot or cold?
- FAQs on Freezing Food
- FAQs on Leftovers
- FAQs on Mold
- What is mold?
- Does mold ever grow on nonperishable food?
- Can I remove a moldy part from food and eat the rest?
- About how many different kinds of molds are there?
- How can I avoid getting mold on my refrigerated food?
- Is mold always visible?
- Are any molds harmless?
- What food groups are most susceptible to mold?
- What kinds of illnesses can result from eating moldy food?
- What kind of packaging protects foods from mold?
- What other safety tips will help prevent mold from growing?
- Why are some molds dangerous?
- FAQs on Organic Food
- What Is Organic Food?
- Are Organic Methods More Humane to Animals?
- Does Conventional Food Have a Longer Shelf Life Than Organic?
- Does Organic Food Taste Better than Conventional Food?
- Is Organic Food More Nutritious Than Conventional Food?
- Is Organically Grown Food Better for the Environment?
- What Do the Various Organic Labels Mean?
- What Important Contributions Has the Organic Movement Made?
- Which Are Safer: Organic or Conventional Food Products?
- Will Organic Baby Food Make Baby Healthier?
- FAQs on Oxidation: How It Affects Foods
- FAQs about Plastic Products Used with Food
- Pyrex® Glassware: Is it safe to use?
- Are plastic bags safe to use in the microwave?
- Are some plastic wraps safer and/or more effective than others?
- Are there any health risks from reusing plastic water bottles by refilling them with tap water?
- Are we eating chemicals from plastics along with our food?
- Can I microwave food in my plastic containers?
- Does the plastic used in water bottles pose a health risk?
- If I heat food in an open can, will that cause the plastic lining to leach chemicals into the food?
- Is it safe to heat frozen entrées in their plastic containers and with their plastic wrap?
- Is it safe to use plastic wrap as a covering when microwaving food?
- Is it safe to wash and dry plastic plates, cups, containers, and utensils in the dishwasher?
- Is there good evidence that BPA is harmful to human health?
- Of the plastic products used to store, heat, or eat with (wraps, bags, containers, silverware, plates, etc.), which contain BPA?
- What is BPA?
- Why is so much of today’s food packaged in plastic?
- FAQs on Preservatives
- What are Preservatives?
- All things considered, is our food supply safer or less safe because of preservatives?
- Are the preservatives in hot dogs and similar products health risks?
- What preservatives are known to cause allergic reactions?
- What are some common preservatives used in food?
- What food groups commonly have preservatives in them?
- Why are preservatives added to food?
- Will the label on the product tell me if it contains a preservative?
- FAQs on Washing Produce: Why and How
- Other FAQs
- Can chicken soup really cure a cold?
- Is Chocolate Good For You?
- Can Science and Technology Help You Save Food Dollars?
- FAQs Answered By Our Board Scientists: on Chickens, Bananas, Old Salad Dressing, and More
- FAQs about Food Price Increases
- FAQs about Shelf Life: Tortillas, Pancakes, Wine, and More
- Food Fraud: Are you paying for scallops and getting shark meat?
- Is Cheese Addictive? Only If You Eat It
- Nine FAQs about Food Labels
- Quiz Yourself! Check Your Knowledge about Food Temperatures
- Scientists Answer Two FAQs about Egg Safety
- Some Shelf Life Info, General and Specific (Spirits, Defrosted Veggies, Green Tea, and More)
- Ten FAQs about the Prickly Pineapple
- What's New in Food? IFT Expo Offers Tasty Innovations
- What's on the Menu in Cuba?
- What’s in My Water? Answers to FAQs
- FAQs on Bacteria
- Books: Food for Thought
- Food Safety
- It Says "Use By Tomorrow," But You Don't Have To
- Ten Tips for Consumer Food Safety
- Food Allergies: Recognizing and Controlling Them
- “Is It Spoiled?” When in Doubt, Check It Out
- How To Keep Your Cooler Cool
- Recent Recalls: Salmonella Threatens 100s of Products
- STOP! Don’t Rinse That Raw Chicken!
- Sous Vide—A Better Way to Cook?
- Why You Need a Safe Cooking Temperature Chart and How to Get One Right Now
- “Myth-information” about Food Safety: You’d Better Not Believe It
- After The Storm: What You Can Save and What You Must Throw Out
- How to Protect Your Food During a Power Outage
- Meet Your Beef--Via Bar Code Info
- Organic Food, GMOs, the Safety of American Food, the Value of Use-By Dates, and More--Scientists Tell Us What They Think
- Raw chicken, Leftovers, Deli Meats, and More-- What Surveyed Scientists Said
- Tips About 4 Popular Beverages: Wine, Coffee, Water, and Soda
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- Introducing our Advisory Board Scientists
- Produce: Handling Tips
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- A Novel Method for Cooking a Turkey
- Crock Pot Cooking Tips for that Ideal Winter Dinner
- Cucumbers: for Cool--and "Cool"--Summer Treats
- Going Away for All or Part of the Winter? Prepare Your Kitchen for your Absence
- How To Grill Safely During the Summer
- How do summer squash and winter squash differ?
- New Year’s Resolutions For a Safer Kitchen
- Preserve the Taste of Summer by Canning—But Do It Safely
- Summer Food Fests Offer Much More than Calories
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- Power Outage? Here’s What to Do with All That Food in the Fridge
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From Purchase to Storage, Tips on Extending Shelf Life
The average American wastes more than 200 pounds of food a year, says the Consumer Reports ShopSmart magazine. The Vegetarian Times website says, “Americans throw out 25% of the produce we buy because it’s gone bad.” What a pity! Ever wish you had a magic wand that could keep your food purchases safe and tasty until you’ve consumed the very last morsel or drop? It would be nice, but you don’t really need that wand. If you select foods carefully, get your perishables home and refrigerated promptly, and wrap and store foods appropriately, you can extend the shelf life of your food purchases and thereby cut down on grocery shopping trips and food bills.
The following article contains many tips on ways to extend the shelf life of your food purchases. But we can’t cover the whole story in one article.For more suggestions, consult the links listed within and at the end of this article.
In the Grocery Store or Supermarket
The proverb “haste makes waste” is especially apt when it comes to shopping for food. Check out those “use-by” dates; they’ll help you locate the items that will last longest. Take time to look at, touch, and sometimes even sniff the perishable products you’re buying. Then what you bring home will be in good condition and likely to stay that way for awhile.
Here are some supermarket shopping suggestions inspired mostly by ShopSmart:
-Don’t be shy. To get the freshest possible meat, poultry, fish, and produce, ask the staff in various departments what days the items you want are regularly delivered. If you’re buying ready-made salad or grilled chicken at the deli counter, ask when these were prepared.
-Take time to check out those “use-by” dates They can help you locate items that will last longest.
-Inspect produce carefully before tossing items into your cart, and look for the freshest items. Apples should be firm and have no bruises. Lemons, oranges, and grapefruit should not have a green tinge; that means they were picked too early. Garlic, onions, and potatoes that are starting to sprout have been exposed to light or heat, which can spoil them. Reach for those in the bins closest to the ground, the coolest, darkest place in the produce department. “How long your lettuce will last depends in part upon its condition when you brought it home,” food scientist Dr. Catherine Cutter points out, “so pick out a good one without brown edges.” (Note: Our Q/As on produce usually include info on how to select the best. Use the “Search” box on our home page to find these Q/As.)
-Shop at stores that have a rapid turnover of food. One sure sign of slow turnover is canned goods with dusty lids or expired coupons.
-For the freshest baked goods, shop at stores with an in-house bakery. Their products are usually replaced daily.
-Before buying a carton of eggs, open it and check for cracks or leakage.
-Selecting raw, unfrozen fish? It should look shiny, have a sheen.
-Don’t assume that all frozen fish is in good condition. Fresh catches are often processed and frozen right on the fishing vessel. However, fish can spoil if it thaws during transport or is held at warm temperatures for too long. If the packaging is transparent, look for signs of frost or ice crystals, which denote the fish has been stored a long time or has thawed and refrozen. If you see ice or crystals, select another package. Don't buy frozen seafood if its package is open, torn, or crushed on the edges, and avoid packages positioned above the "frost line," or top of the freezer case.
For more shopping suggestions concerning freshness and saving money, click on these links:
Shop as often as possible, and don’t buy more perishables than you use can fairly soon. Despite all efforts to extend shelf life, the fact remains that produce, poultry, fish, and many other products taste best when they’re fresh.
At the checkout counter, keep an eye on the bagger to be sure your food is properly packed. Raw meat, poultry, and fish should be separated from other foods so drippings can’t contaminate other items. Berries shouldn’t be placed under canned goods if you don’t want them crushed. Cakes should not be bagged upside down or sideways if you want them to look nice when served.
From Store to Home
Perishable foods should not be kept unrefrigerated for more than 2 hours. Moreover, they don’t react well to temperature variations, so don’t let them warm up while you chat with a friend in the store parking lot. The faster you get groceries home, the better. If you must make a stop between the store and home, bring along a cooler (or at least an insulated bag) with sufficient ice or ice packs to keep the contents below 40°F. or as cool as possible. Your frozen purchases will also help to keep the items that require refrigeration cool.
In wintertime, put your groceries in the trunk, where they won’t be warmed up by the heat you turn on. In the summer, when using air conditioning, put the groceries inside the car, the perishables as close as possible to the vents.
If you generally walk home from the store pulling groceries in a cart, schedule this excursion in cooler weather, perhaps after sundown.
When you get home, even if the dog needs walking and the kids want a snack, give those groceries priority; get them out of the car and the perishables into the fridge immediately. They’ll last longer if you do.
Tips for Handling Perishables
In terms of helping to extend the shelf life of perishables, your fridge is your best friend. Rather than 40°F, keep the temperature around 36-37°F (or even a few degrees cooler if that doesn’t freeze and ruin your lettuce or berries). The cooler the fridge, the less rapidly bacteria will multiply and spoil food. Dr. Cutter explains, “Colder temperatures slow down the metabolic growth of microbes. Food scientist Dr. Karin Allen adds, “Even a few degrees difference can affect shelf life. If your refrigerator doesn’t have a built-in thermometer, buy one.”
Also, keep the refrigerator clean. Bacteria can grow on spills and food particles left on shelves, and migrate and contaminate the food. Click here for advice on how to clean and sanitize your fridge.
Pay attention to where you place foods in the fridge. Don’t put eggs in the refrigerator door. The temperature fluctuates there when the door is opened. The door is a fine place for pasteurized fruit juices, olive oil, re-corked white wine, and condiments such as mustard and ketchup. Butter can also be stored in the door because it has a very high fat content (80%) and low water content (20%), which inhibits microbial growth.
Put raw meat and poultry on a plate (tightly-wrapped) on the bottom shelf to be sure no drippings from it migrate to the food and hasten spoilage of other items.
The following products should be tightly wrapped before refrigeration: meat, poultry, fish, and cheese. To reach 18 Q/As on wrapping food right, click here.
Dr. Cutter offers these suggestions about family habits: “Don't take mayonnaise with the knife or spoon you just used in the tuna fish, and don’t let your kids drink milk directly out of the bottle.”
Tips on Handling Produce
There’s a lot to learn about the proper handling of produce. Here are some general rules:
-Produce lasts longer if it’s kept whole. According to food scientist Barry Swanson of Washington State University, “As soon as you start pulling fruits and vegetables apart, you’ve broken cells, and microorganisms start to grow.” However, food scientist and produce specialist Dr. Luke LaBorde doesn’t advise consumers to give up the convenience of buying sliced mushrooms, melon chunks, or bagged chopped lettuce. Instead, his recommendation is that consumers use these products up as rapidly as possible to prevent bacteria from multiplying to the point where they spoil the product and/or cause illness. He also offers this reassuring comment: “Billions of pounds of chopped lettuce are produced each year, and we rarely see problems.”
-Most produce lasts longer in the fridge because cold temperatures slow respiration (breathing).
-Produce needs some air. If you seal fruits and vegetables in airtight bags, you hasten spoilage and contamination. They should not be covered with plastic that has no holes in it. (Generally, there are small ones in the wrap on berries, mushrooms, and other produce.) If not, puncture the plastic or store them in a paper bag.
-Ethylene must be considered. Some fruits give off a lot of this gas; others respond to this gas by ripening more quickly. Be especially careful to keep apples away from ethylene-sensitive produce that you don’t want to ripen quickly. According to the Vegetarian Times website, if you put spinach or kale in the same bin as apples or peaches, the greens will become yellow and limp within a day or two.
You can also try some of the products on the market now that claim to absorb ethylene. (Click here for the names of these products and for more suggestions on storing produce in general.) Click here for the Shelf Life Advice discussion on bags that absorb ethylene. To consult an extensive chart on produce that gives off ethylene and produce that responds to it, click here. (Note: Be patient. It may take a little while for this long chart to open.) This chart also lists the optimal temperature for many common fruits and vegetables. It can help you decide which ones to refrigerate and which to store in a cool basement or crawl space. We strongly recommend that you print out this chart and keep it handy in your kitchen.
-Food scientist and produce specialist Dr. Luke LaBorde gives this advice: “Keep fruit that can be refrigerated in the container it was sold in or loosely wrapped in a bag or paper towel to minimize moisture loss. It’s best to wash fruit just before eating (or preparing to cook or serve) to prevent surface moisture accumulation and mold growth during storage.”
-Food scientist Dr. Fadi Aramouni (at Kansas State University) says that greens tend to dry out and wilt after a few days in the fridge, but spraying them (lightly!) with water will maintain crispness and extend their shelf life an extra day or two.
Tips on Dried Spices, Canned Goods, and other Shelf-Stable Items
-Spices: Resist the urge to buy an attractive spice rack and hang it on the wall. Dried spices will last longest if kept in a cool, dry, dark cabinet. If you already have a spice rack or counter spice stand, at least keep it away from the oven and away from bright sunlight. Some dried spices can last for years, but, when they lose their scent, throw them out.
-Canned goods:Also, store these away from heat and light. Rotate what’s on your shelves. Put the oldest items in front so that you don’t wind up with canned goods older than you are hiding far back in your cabinet. These could eventually deteriorate, explode, and make an enormous mess. (I know someone this happened to.)
-Other shelf-stable items: Don’t keep pancake mix, crackers, cookies, breadcrumbs, etc. forever. These items can get stale and taste awful. Remember, “use-by” dates on foods refer to the sealed package. Once any food is opened, it’s likely to deteriorate before that date.
For more shelf life advice on specific products, you can find a link to the relevant Q/A on that product by typing the name of the product in the “Search” box on this site’s home page.
For additional tips on ways to extend shelf life, click here: http://shelflifeadvice.com/content/six-tips-extending-shelf-life-foods
To read advice about extending shelf life by correct use of your freezer, cllck here: http://shelflifeadvice.com/content/freeze-or-not-freeze-and-related-questions
Karin E. Allen, Ph.D., Utah State University, Dept. of Nutrition, Dietetics, and Food Sciences
Catherine N. Cutter, Ph.D., Pennsylvania State University, Dept. of Food Science
Luke LaBorde, Ph.D. Pennsylvania State University, Dept. of Food Science
forbes.com “Grocery Produce That Lasts The Longest
vegetariantimes.com “Spoiled Rotten—How to Store Fruits and Vegetables”
Consumer Reports SHOPSMART September, 2011.