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The Big Lie of Food Expiration Dates

Sure seems like everyone’s become a baker these days…

My biweekly, late-night grocery store runs (when nobody else is around) have come up empty in the flour department. Even online retailers are out of the stuff.

But a raid deep into the nether regions of my pantry in order to make some bread this weekend turned up some white gold.

The only problem was the expiration date. The “best by” date was stamped a few years out of date.

Setting aside my reservations, I gave it a shot.

After a couple rounds of kneading and resting periods, I preheated the oven, shaped my loaves, and got to baking.

Everything smelled according to plan. But the real question was… How will they taste?

After letting the loaves cool, I cut a couple slices to dip in olive oil.

The verdict was in…

Flour’s shelf life is a lot longer than advertised. In this case, by at least three years.

This encouraging experiment got me wondering… What else in the pantry lasts longer than meets the eye?

In turns out a whole lot.

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When Bad Is Really Bad

Food product dating is not only voluntary but also pretty arbitrary.

The Department of Agriculture doesn’t even require food dating on what we eat. Those dates are nothing more than the “best guess” from manufacturers as to when “peak quality” will start to decrease.

And those guesses are unsurprisingly conservative…

When the magic date printed on a food label hits, the food doesn’t suddenly spoil.

All it really does is get you to dig into your pockets and buy more stuff.

But it’s ridiculous.

Honey, sugar, salt, vinegar… Those things will be just fine long after any date you might find stamped on the container.

Most cooking oils will last for years too… if they’re stored properly. Those big tins of unrefined oils (olive, coconut, canola) are practically bombproof. But if they’re in plastic or glass containers, they won’t last quite as long – and even less so if they’re stored near a heat source like the stove.

The best way to tell if a cooking oil has gone bad for good? The smell test. If it smells overly metallic (or fishy, in the case of canola oil), you missed the window of opportunity. And if you can’t smell it, you can try dabbing a drop on your finger. If it’s slick, it’s good to go. If it’s sticky, it’s time to chuck it.

Other things hidden in the outer recesses of the pantry with a longer shelf life than advertised are canned goods. If the can isn’t rusty or swollen (looking like it could explode), it’s good to go. As long as when you pop it open it doesn’t look or smell gross (moldy or rotten), no problem.

Most canned goods will remain as tasty as the day you bought them for years and years.

Same goes for mustard. I’d be just as comfortable eating mustard from last century as I would a fresh batch.

Surprisingly, mayonnaise lasts substantially longer than advertised too (as long as it’s stored right). All of the fats and acids aren’t very hospitable to bacteria.

So feel free to stock up on the industrial-sized containers of condiments.

At the end of the day, don’t trust the date on most food packaging. Food manufacturers want you to buy their stuff more often than you need to. That’s good for their bottom line.

But for your household’s bottom line, you’re much better off trusting your nose and eyes to lead the way.

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