Food Shelf-Life: How to Determine and Preserve It

by Joost Nusselder | Last Updated:  May 28, 2022

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Shelf life is the length of time that a commodity may be stored without becoming unfit for use or consumption. It applies to foods, beverages, pharmaceutical drugs, chemicals, and many other perishable items. In some regions, an advisory best before, mandatory use by, or freshness date is required on packaged perishable foods.

The shelf-life of a food product is determined by various factors, such as its formulation, processing, packaging, and storage conditions. It’s also commonly referred to as the “best-before” or “use-by” date.

In this article, I’ll provide an overview of shelf-life and its impact on our lives.

What is shelf-life

Understanding Food Shelf Life: A Comprehensive Guide

Food shelf life refers to the period during which food can be stored and remain safe for consumption while retaining an acceptable quality from a safety and organoleptic point of view. The shelf life of a food product depends on several factors, including formulation, processing, packaging, and storage conditions.

How is Shelf Life Determined?

The shelf life of a food product is determined by conducting tests that evaluate the quality of the product over time. These tests take into account the nature and state of the product, as well as the specific storage conditions required to maintain its quality. The results of these tests are used to determine the period during which the product can be safely stored and consumed.

What Items Require Shelf Life Dates?

In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires that all perishable food items, as well as infant formula and baby food, be labeled with a shelf life date. However, there are exceptions to this requirement, and the laws regarding food dating vary from state to state.

How are Shelf Life Dates Legally Required?

The FDA requires that all food products sold in the United States be wholesome and fit for consumption. To ensure that this requirement is met, the agency has established a code of federal regulations that includes guidelines for food dating. While these guidelines are not legally binding, they are used by the FDA to determine whether a product is safe for consumption.

How to Safely Remove Food from Shelf Life?

When removing food from shelf life, it is important to take into account the individual nature of the product and the specific storage conditions required to maintain its quality. Some general guidelines for safely removing food from shelf life include:

  • Check the shelf life date before consuming the product
  • Inspect the product for signs of spoilage, such as mold or an off odor
  • Store the product properly to ensure that it remains safe for consumption

What is the Role of Packaging in Food Shelf Life?

Proper packaging is essential to ensure that a food product retains its quality and remains safe for consumption. The packaging used for a particular food product will depend on the individual nature of the product and the specific storage conditions required to maintain its quality. Some common types of food packaging include:

  • Vacuum-sealed bags
  • Airtight containers
  • Cans and jars
  • Plastic wrap and bags

Mastering the Skillful Maneuvering of Determining Food Shelf Life

Determining the shelf life of food products is a scientific process that involves identifying critical factors that affect the quality and stability of the product. Manufacturers need to perform a complete assessment of the intrinsic and extrinsic properties of the food to pinpoint the activity that ends the desired quality of the product. The following steps are critical in identifying these factors:

  • Identify the formulation of the product and the ingredients used.
  • Calculate the water activity of the product.
  • Perform empirical testing to identify any changes in the product over time.
  • Reassess the formulation of the product to avoid any problems.

Predictions and Testing

Once the critical factors have been identified, manufacturers can begin to make predictions about the shelf life of the product. This involves accelerated testing to determine how the product will react to different storage conditions. The following steps are critical in making these predictions:

  • Determine the desired shelf life of the product.
  • Identify the packaging and storage conditions needed to maintain the desired shelf life.
  • Perform precise testing to calculate the shelf life of the product under these conditions.
  • Reassess the formulation of the product to boost shelf life.

Boosting Shelf Life

Skillful maneuvering in determining the shelf life of food products helps manufacturers avoid costly mistakes and boost the quality of their products. The following tips can help manufacturers boost the shelf life of their products:

  • Use proper packaging to maintain the desired storage conditions.
  • Identify and control extrinsic factors such as gaseous atmosphere, storage temperature, and relative humidity.
  • Use precise information to calculate the shelf life of the product.
  • Perform regular testing to reassess the formulation of the product and pinpoint any problems.
  • Avoid accelerated activity that can cut the shelf life of the product.

How to Determine the Shelf Life of Foods

The length of time a food product can be stored and still maintain its quality and safety is referred to as its shelf life. To achieve the best quality and safety, it is important to know how long a product can be stored and under what conditions. Consequently, manufacturers are required to indicate the expected shelf life of their products on the label. This includes the best-by date, use-by date, and sell-by date. Here are some examples of what these dates mean:

  • Best-by date: This date reflects the length of time the product is expected to retain its best quality. After this date, the product may still be safe to consume, but the quality may have deteriorated.
  • Use-by date: This date is particularly important for chilled dairy, cooked meats, and other foods that can pose a risk of food poisoning if consumed after the date stated on the label.
  • Sell-by date: This date is used by retailers to determine how long a product should be displayed for sale. It does not necessarily mean that the product is no longer safe to consume after this date.

Factors that Affect Shelf Life

The shelf life of a product is determined by a variety of factors, including:

  • The type of food and its ingredients
  • The storage conditions, such as temperature, humidity, and light
  • The packaging and storage method, such as vacuum packing, modified atmosphere packaging, or freezing
  • The time and conditions of production and preparation

Validation and Management

To determine the shelf life of a product, manufacturers conduct studies that include microbiological sampling and determination of the product’s characteristics under regular storage conditions. This is an integral part of quality management and validates the safety and quality of the product. Particularly when modifying production or storage sites, it is important to conduct these studies to ensure that the shelf life of the product is not affected.

Keeping it Cool: The Importance of Temperature Control

Maintaining proper temperature control is critical for food safety. It helps to prevent the growth of harmful bacteria, mold, and other microorganisms that can cause foodborne illnesses. Temperature control also helps to maintain the quality and freshness of foods, ensuring that they remain safe and enjoyable to eat.

What are the ideal storage temperatures for different types of foods?

The ideal storage temperature for food depends on the type of food being stored. Here are some general guidelines to follow:

  • Cold foods: should be stored at or below 40°F (4°C) to prevent bacterial growth.
  • Hot foods: should be stored at or above 140°F (60°C) to maintain their internal temperature and prevent bacterial growth.
  • Dry foods: should be stored in a cool, dry place away from direct sunlight and moisture.
  • Frozen foods: should be stored at or below 0°F (-18°C) to maintain their quality and prevent freezer burn.

How can you ensure proper temperature control?

Here are some tips to help you maintain proper temperature control when storing and serving food:

  • Use a thermometer: to check the temperature of your food and ensure that it is being stored at the correct temperature.
  • Keep your kitchen clean: to prevent the growth of bacteria and other harmful microorganisms.
  • Follow the instructions on food products: to ensure that they are being stored correctly.
  • Use proper packaging: to prevent air and moisture from getting in and causing spoilage.
  • Check the temperature regularly: to make sure that it is being maintained at the correct level.
  • Store foods properly: in the correct phase of the refrigerator or freezer, and away from any heat sources.
  • Record the temperature: to make sure that it stays consistent and within the required range.

What are the consequences of improper temperature control?

Improper temperature control can cause a range of problems, including:

  • Spoilage: which can lead to food waste and a loss of supply.
  • Foodborne illness: which can cause serious health problems and even death.
  • Decreased quality: which can make food less enjoyable to eat and reduce its nutritional value.

What are some common mistakes when it comes to temperature control?

Here are some common mistakes to avoid when it comes to temperature control:

  • Lack of understanding: of the importance of temperature control and how to maintain it.
  • Pulling food out of the refrigerator too early: which can cause it to spoil faster.
  • Not checking the temperature regularly: which can lead to fluctuations and inconsistencies.
  • Storing foods in the wrong place: which can cause them to spoil or become contaminated.
  • Allowing hot foods to cool too slowly: which can increase the risk of bacterial growth.

Why Packaging Plays a Vital Role in Preserving Food Shelf Life

The type of packaging material used for food products is a critical factor in determining the shelf life of a product. The packaging material must be able to protect the food from biological, chemical, and physical contamination. It should also prevent water loss or gain, which can compromise the quality and safety of the product. The packaging material should also allow for the necessary atmosphere to be maintained, which is essential for preserving the product’s quality and safety.

The Role of Active and Novel Packaging

Active packaging is a recent development in food packaging that allows for increased shelf life by incorporating materials that interact with the product to maintain its quality and safety. Novel packaging, on the other hand, is a type of packaging that undergoes a specific process to provide access to the product while preserving its shelf life. Both active and novel packaging play a significant role in preserving food shelf life.

The Impact of Temperature and Atmosphere Control

Temperature control is a vital aspect of preserving food shelf life. The packaging should be able to withstand the processing and distribution temperatures to prevent any compromise in the product’s quality and safety. Atmosphere control is also essential, as it can significantly impact the product’s shelf life. The packaging should be able to maintain the required atmosphere to preserve the product’s quality and safety.

The Role of Research and Development

Researchers and microbiologists are partnering with packaging companies to develop new materials and processes that can increase the reliability and quality of food packaging. Universities and institutions are also participating in research and development to support the development of new packaging materials and processes. The forthcoming papers and preprints showcased on the publisher Elsevier’s site provide a preview of the latest research and development in the field of food packaging.

The Impact of Convenience and Cost

Packaging plays a significant role in providing convenience to consumers. The packaging should be easy to open, store, and use. However, convenience should not compromise the product’s shelf life. The cost of packaging is also a significant consideration for food manufacturers. The packaging should be cost-effective and not make the product too expensive for consumers to purchase.

The Role of Safety and Contamination Prevention

Packaging is a critical factor in ensuring the safety of food products. The packaging should prevent any contamination from direct or indirect contact with the product. The packaging should also be able to withstand any processing or distribution activity without compromising the product’s safety. The packaging should also provide a clear indication of the product’s shelf life and status, such as revised or rejected.

The Impact of Ranking and Categorization

Packaging materials and science are categorized under the agricultural sciences and materials science subject category. The reliability and quality of packaging materials are essential for preserving food shelf life. The ranking of packaging materials and science in the media and academic institutions can impact the development and adoption of new packaging materials and processes.

Preserving Foods: Keeping Them Fresh and Safe

Preserving food is a great way to protect fresh produce and prevent food waste. By inhibiting the growth of bacteria and microorganisms, we can extend the shelf-life of foods for weeks or even months. There are many methods of preservation, each with its own plan and practices. Let’s explore some of the ways we can preserve our foods.

Preservation Methods

Here are some of the most popular methods for preserving food:

  • Refrigeration: Reduces the temperature of food, slowing down the growth of microorganisms and bacteria. The USDA calls for a temperature of 40°F or below to keep food safe.
  • Freezing: Freezing food stops the growth of microorganisms and bacteria. It also removes moisture, which prevents enzyme reactions from occurring. Root cellaring is a natural way to preserve foods by storing them in a cool, dark place.
  • Canning: Canning involves pasteurization, which kills bacteria and microorganisms. It also removes oxygen, which inhibits the growth of bacteria. Canning can be done through dehydration, pasteurization, evaporation, smoking, or cold.
  • Pickling: Pickling uses vinegar, lactic acid fermentation, salt, or other chemicals to preserve foods. The acid in vinegar or lactic acid fermentation creates an unsuitable environment for microorganisms to grow.
  • Vacuum sealing: Vacuum sealing removes oxygen, which inhibits the growth of bacteria. Oxygen absorbers can also be added to the packaging to further reduce the oxygen levels.
  • Filtration and clarification: Filtration and clarification remove impurities from liquids, such as oil, to prevent the growth of bacteria.

Best Practices

Here are some best practices to keep in mind when preserving (like with smoking) food:

  • Use fresh, high-quality produce.
  • Wash your hands and equipment thoroughly before handling food.
  • Use clean, sterilized jars and lids for canning.
  • Follow proper canning procedures to prevent contamination.
  • Store food in a cool, dry place away from direct sunlight.
  • Check for signs of spoilage before eating preserved foods.


So, food shelf-life is the period the food remains safe to eat and retains acceptable quality. It depends on the formulation, processing, and packaging of the food, as well as the storage conditions. You should be able to tell if food is past its shelf-life by looking at it and smelling it, and you should store it properly to maintain its quality. So, don’t be afraid to throw out food that’s past its shelf-life. You’re doing the right thing for your health.

Joost Nusselder, the founder of Lakeside Smokers is a content marketer, dad and loves trying out new food with BBQ Smoking (& 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.