Yes, These 10 Foods and Drinks Will Eventually Go Bad, According to Food Safety Experts
Anyone else been there, shopped that, and bought a few too many pantry staples? (Ahem, pandemic stock-up-palooza 2020!) Same. Since we're more than a year past that date, this got us wondering, when is food past its prime? Most of the dates on foods and drinks in the United States relate to quality, not safety, explains Natalie Seymour, a food safety extension associate at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, North Carolina. "That means what is 'good' or 'bad' is often subject to individual preference. However, there is a common school of thought that if something is past date then it would instantly make you sick. And this just isn't true in the vast majority of cases," she says.
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) requires dating information on retail foods and drinks that allow those who purchase them to know when they will no longer offer the best flavor ("best by" or "best if used by") or when a store may want to remove a product from its shelves ("sell by").
"With the important exception of infant formula, [which could lead to a life-threatening nutrient deficiency since it may be the child's sole source of nutrition if the quality degrades over time], the worst that will happen to you if you consume an out of date product is that you'll be disappointed because it won't taste very good," Donald Schaffner, Ph.D., a professor of food microbiology at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey.
That being said, if your can is bulging or you spy mold on that yogurt, definitely toss it. The Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) branch of the USDA advises: "If the date passes during home storage, a product should still be safe and wholesome if handled properly until spoilage is evident."
The definition of "spoilage" can vary based on the food.
"If we're not talking about food safety, some of the things that people would consider making an item 'go bad' would include visible changes like mold, slime, color changes, or alterations in texture, smell, or taste. There could also be some changes in the efficacy of a product, such as leavening agents becoming less active," Seymour says, as with yeast (see below).
Both Seymour and Schaffner recommend the USDA's FoodKeeper app, which can help you keep tabs on the freshness and quality of items stored in your pantry, refrigerator, and freezer—while potentially cutting down on food waste.
10 Foods and Drinks That Will Go Bad Over Time
Pay special attention to these common pantry staples. Even though it might seem like they last forever, food safety pros say they can taste "off" over time—especially after being opened.
Coffee or tea
Drinks that have been brewed must be refrigerated, otherwise they will begin to grow bacteria. (Reminder: Sun tea is a bad idea!) "The pH of brewed coffee or tea at room temperature is not acidic enough to prevent the growth of bacteria or mold," Seymour says.
Grains like flour can go rancid due to the oils in the mix. Yes, wheat naturally contains oils, most of which are found in the germ, which will be part of the milled wheat flour product you buy. All-purpose flours should keep for up to 8 months post-"best by" date, and whole-wheat flour (which has more oil because it contains the whole grain including the germ) will likely last about 6 months past that date before exhibiting an unpleasant odor or taste.
Most condiments can chill out in your refrigerator for 6 to 12 months; long after most expiration dates. (Same holds true for other condiments like mustard and barbecue sauce.)
"Condiments like ketchup certainly keep a long time, and will keep longer in the refrigerator after opening. But even ketchup won't taste great forever," says Schaffner.
Meats that have been opened
Besides "best by" or "sell by," pay attention to dates that give a timeframe for use after opening, Seymour advises.
"For example, lunch meats and deli items might have a date that says use within 7 days of opening.' Those date markings are based on how much time it would take for the bacteria Listeria monocytogenes to grow a level that could cause illness, since it's the only foodborne illness-causing bacteria that can grow well at refrigerator temperatures," she says.
It's all about the oxygen. Unopened, nuts can generally hang out in the pantry for up to 6 months past their "best by" dates or frozen for as long as 2 years.
"Nuts will keep for a long time in a sealed container, but remember that once you open that container and expose the nuts to oxygen, oxidation of the fats begins to take place and can lead to rancid flavors," Schaffner says.
Similarly, since nut butters are high in fats that can go rancid, take note of when you purchase and open the jar. Natural nut butters last about 3 months unopened in the pantry, then another 6 months in the refrigerator after opening. Processed nut butters should be A-OK up to 2 years unopened, then another 6 months after opening.
Fats and storage location also play a huge role in how long your rice lasts. Rice varieties that have more fiber and oils, such as brown rice, go bad quicker (about 6 to 8 months) than white, jasmine, basmati, and arborio rice (about 4 years). For a longer lifespan, store all of the above in a cool and dry place, such as a pantry or cupboard far away from a heat source.
That blue cheese dressing might leave you feeling blue about its flavor if it's too aged.
Just as with ketchup, "it's generally about quality and not about safety. I once had the experience of tasting some sealed salad dressing, but was long past its best by date. It literally tasted like cardboard, even though it was ranch dressing in a plastic bottle," Schaffner says.
Some wines get better with age, but the longer they hang, the higher the risk for cork taint. Since cork toppers are made with a natural material, they can get inoculated with airborne fungi that make "TCA," a chemical compound that makes wine smell like a wet dog or mildewy basement, and taste flat, not-so-fruity, astringent, or dull. This happens to about one bottle per case, or about 8% of wines.
"Even wines reach an optimal quality at a certain point and past that point they may not taste as good," Schaffner says, and wines with a screw top, in a box, or canned wines are not meant to be aged at all.
Yeast is actually a living thing. The older it gets, the less active it will be and the longer it will take to rise—if it rises at all. If yeast appears darker or clumps, toss it. Otherwise, individual packs should be good for 3 months past their expiration date, and any larger yeast containers should be used or thrown out within 6 months post-opening.
Typically, the majority of Americans err on the side of caution and throw away more foods than necessary, Seymour admits, likely following the wise old mantra "when in doubt, throw it out." Check to ensure your freezer is set to 0°F and your fridge to 40°F for best quality and longest lifespan, Schaffner adds, and mark all of your foods with your own dates to track based on the guidance above.