Every house has food in the pantry that has been there for weeks if not months, but according to food experts, you may want to think twice before throwing those items out. Many common food products last far longer than you might think.
"We throw out tons of food each year in this country because people don't understand how long they can keep things," said Jo-Ann Heslin, a certified nutritionist and author of The Complete Food Counter.
As Heslin and other nutritionists explain, consumers generally assume that foods should not be eaten after the use-by date on the package, but in reality, this date simply indicates the period of time when the food tastes best, not the date when it will suddenly make you sick.
It's true that fresh foods like fruits and vegetables should not be consumed much after the use-by date has passed, as these products generally spoil quickly (unless frozen), but for countless packaged products, the consumption window can last for years.
"For connoisseurs who have a real taste for a certain food, it's probably a good idea to use it by the best by date, but nothing bad will happen to you if you don't," said Keri Gans, a registered dietician and author of The Small Change Diet.
The general recipe for longevity, according to these experts, is for the food to be low in liquids, sugar and oil, all of which have the potential to mold and spoil the food, or to have "lots and lots" of preservatives, which keep the food fresh longer.
So if you're looking for groceries to buy in bulk and store in your pantry, these products are your best bet.
Canned Beans and Vegetables
Canned food, by definition, lasts longer than most products in the grocery store because it has been specially processed in air-tight cans. In general, canned items can stay good for 12-18 months, according to Gans, but some last even longer. Canned products like beans and vegetables, which are low in acid, can actually last for as long as two to five years. The only exception is if the can is dented or rusty, as that indicates the can has been punctured at some point, which speeds up the spoilage process.
You may want to think twice before replacing the containers in your spice rack. In general, most common spices like salt, pepper and oregano don't actually expire in the traditional sense, they just become less and less flavorful.
"Salt occurs naturally in nature, it has no expiration date," Heslin said. "There is no difference in 10-year-old salt at all, as long as it hasn't been exposed to moisture."
But over time, the potency and taste of the spice begins to decline, which is why Gans recommends using these spices within two to four years to be safe. Keep in mind too by that point, you'll probably have to use more of each spice in order to compensate for the loss in flavor.
Cereal and Crackers
You might as well start stocking up on crackers and cereal for the winter. According to Heslin, these products are essentially just "edible cardboard" that don't have enough moisture to grow bacteria or mold, so they can last for a very long time. Cereals like Cheerios and Puff Wheat, which have little to no sugar, can last for 18-24 months if unopened, while crackers like saltines can generally last for about two years.
"The safety and nutrient quality of these products doesn't change, but the taste and texture might deteriorate somewhat," Heslin said.
In other words, your body will be fine eating these things after more than a year, but you may find them a bit too stale to make it worthwhile.
Dried Pasta and White Rice
Just as with cereal and crackers, dried pasta and white rice do not contain enough moisture to spoil, and can therefore last for at least two years unopened. Consumers should be mindful though of what kind of pasta and rice they intend to store, though. Brown rice and whole wheat pasta may seem the same, but in reality each of these products contains more oil than their traditional counterparts, and can therefore go rancid much quicker.
Unmade popcorn kernels can last for up to two years, according to Gans, once again because they lack the oils and moisture that would lead to spoilage.
All those condiments you have left over from July Fourth festivities may just barely survive until Independence Day weekend next year. Ketchup, mustard, horseradish and salad dressings generally contain no ingredients that can go bad, and according to Gans, they will last for a solid 12 months unopened before they completely lose their taste.
Old fashioned Coca-Cola is the ultimate bomb shelter beverage. If left unopened, Heslin says a can of coke will take "an extraordinarily long time" to expire. Diet sodas, on the other hand, expire much more quickly because they contain artificial sweeteners that degrade with heat and time.
Honey can take years to expire, but according to Gans, one can conservatively hold onto it for about a year before its consistency begins to change, hardening and losing its sweet taste. Interestingly, Gans says that honey stays good for 12 months whether it's opened or unopened, making it one of the only foods where that is the case.
Despite all the claims in pop culture to the contrary, Twinkies don't actually last forever. In fact, you'd be lucky to have a Twinkie that is still edible after a few months