Food Shelf-Life: How Temperature Control and Packaging Affect Your Groceries

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What does shelf-life mean with food? It’s a question many people ask, and it’s not as simple as you might think.

Shelf-life is the period of time during which a product may be expected to remain in good condition for sale or use. It’s important to know the shelf-life of the food you buy, because if you don’t use it in time, it could make you sick.

In this article, I’ll explain what shelf-life means with food, how to determine it, and why it’s important to know.

What is food shelf-life

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The Food Date Vocabulary Problem

Have you ever found yourself staring at a food label, trying to decipher what the date means? You’re not alone. The vast majority of people are confused by the various dates and labels on food products. Here are some common terms you might encounter:

  • “Sell by” date: This is the date by which the store should sell the product. It doesn’t necessarily mean the product is no longer usable after that date.
  • “Best by” or “use by” date: This is the date by which the product is at its best quality. It doesn’t necessarily mean the product is unsafe to eat after that date.
  • “Expiration” date: This is the date after which the product should not be consumed. It’s important to pay attention to this date, as consuming expired food can cause harm.

The Problem with Food Date Labels

The current system of food labeling is not standardized, which can cause confusion for consumers. Additionally, many companies use their own date labeling system, which can vary depending on the product. This can lead to a lot of waste, as people may throw out perfectly good food simply because they don’t understand the labeling.

How to Accurately Determine the Shelf-Life of Food Products

Determining the shelf-life of food products involves a series of critical steps that are integral to ensuring that the product remains safe and of acceptable quality for a specific length of time. The determination of shelf-life involves testing the product to pinpoint the point at which the product’s quality begins to degrade, and it becomes unsuitable for consumption. The testing involves microbiological, sensory, and physical tests that help identify the mechanism of spoilage and the critical areas involved.

Temperature Control: The Key to Extending Shelf-Life

Temperature control is one of the main factors in extending the shelf-life of food products. The temperature at which food is stored can greatly affect the quality, safety, and usability of the product. Improper temperature control can cause chemical reactions, bacterial growth, and breakdown of compounds, which can result in spoilage, damage, and potential health hazards.

What Temperatures are Required?

Different foods require different temperature ranges for optimal storage. Generally, the rule of thumb is to keep perishable foods at or below 40°F (4°C) and frozen foods at or below 0°F (-18°C). Poultry and beef, for example, require a temperature range of 32°F to 40°F (0°C to 4°C) to maintain their quality and safety. On the other hand, dry foods like grains and cereals can be stored at room temperature, but should be kept in a cool, dry place away from direct sunlight.

How to Maintain Temperature Control?

There are several traditional and special methods to help maintain temperature control, including:

  • Refrigeration: A fast and accurate way to cool food products and prevent bacterial growth.
  • Freezing: A method to extend the shelf-life of products by slowing down chemical reactions and bacterial growth.
  • Dehydrator: A special device designed to remove moisture from foods, which can extend the shelf-life of products that require limited moisture.
  • Cold Chain: A process that involves keeping food products at a constant temperature from production to consumption. This method is commonly used for perishable products like meat, dairy, and produce.

What Happens if Temperature Control is Not Properly Maintained?

If temperature control is not properly maintained, it can result in:

  • Bacterial growth: Bacteria can multiply rapidly in warm temperatures, which can cause foodborne illnesses.
  • Chemical breakdown: High temperatures can cause chemical reactions that break down compounds in food, resulting in spoilage and loss of quality.
  • Dehydration: Dry foods can become stale and lose their flavor and texture if not stored properly.
  • Freezer burn: Frozen foods can become damaged if not properly wrapped and stored.

What is the Best Way to Ensure Temperature Control?

The best way to ensure temperature control is to follow these steps:

  • Check the temperature of your refrigerator and freezer regularly to ensure they are at the proper temperature.
  • Store perishable foods in the refrigerator or freezer within two hours of purchase or cooking.
  • Use a thermometer to check the internal temperature of meat and poultry to ensure they are cooked to a safe temperature.
  • Wrap and store frozen foods properly to prevent freezer burn.
  • Use a dehydrator or store dry foods in a cool, dry place away from direct sunlight.

The Role of Packaging in Shelf-Life of Food Products

Packaging plays a crucial role in determining the shelf-life of food products. It helps to maintain the quality and freshness of the product by protecting it from external factors such as moisture, oxygen, and contamination. Here are some important points to consider when it comes to packaging:

  • The primary function of packaging is to provide a barrier against deleterious factors that can cause degradation of the product.
  • Packaging employs a mechanism that allows controlled blocking of oxygen, moisture, and other unsuitable factors that can affect the quality of the product.
  • The type of packaging used depends on the specific product and its requirements. For example, canned foods require a different type of packaging than fresh produce.
  • The FDA has defined acceptable packaging materials and requirements for different products based on scientific research and studies.
  • The packaging material must be safe and not cause any health issues or contamination of the product.
  • The packaging must also be accurate in terms of the content and the expiration date.

The Exceptions to the Rule

While proper packaging can help extend the shelf-life of food products, there are some exceptions to the rule. Here are some factors to consider:

  • Improper storage or handling of the product can significantly reduce its shelf-life, even if it is properly packaged.
  • Some foods, such as fresh produce, have a shorter shelf-life regardless of packaging due to their natural state.
  • The FDA allows for some exceptions to the expiration date rule, such as for low-risk products like vinegar or for products that have a long history of safe use, like honey.
  • In some cases, the expiration date may not be accurate due to variations in the product’s activity or degradation over time.


So, shelf-life means the length of time a food product can be stored without spoiling. 

It’s important to pay attention to food date labels and to determine the shelf life of food products properly. So, don’t throw away food just because the date has passed. You can use this guide to help you with that.

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Joost Nusselder, the founder of Bite My Bun is a content marketer, dad and loves trying out new food with Japanese food at the heart of his passion, and together with his team he's been creating in-depth blog articles since 2016 to help loyal readers with recipes and cooking tips.