NOTE: THESE PAGES HAVE BEEN DRAMATICALLY UPDATED
Determining the storage life of foods is at best an inexact science as there are so many variables. These range from the condition your food was in when you first purchased it and many other factors. This page was written with input by Mr. Stephen Portela who has over 30 years of professional food storage experience. This information should be used as a general guide only, and should not be followed "as the gospel truth" because your results may be different.
Factor #1: The Temperature Temperature has more to do with how long well dried foods store than anything else. The USDA states, "Each 5.6oC. (10.08oF) drop in temperature doubles the storage life of the seeds". Obviously, there is a limit as to how far this statement can be taken. However I expect it basically holds true from room temperature down to freezing. No doubt, the inverse could also be considered true. "Each 5.6oC. (10.08oF) rise in temperature halves the storage life of seeds." This theory holds true for non-garden seeds as well.
Counter these stories with several examples told by Mr. Stephen Portela, Walton Feed's manager: He stores his long term food storage in his basement where the temperature hovers around 60oF. The experts give brown rice a 6 month storage life because of all the oils in it that go rancid. Yet, Mr. Portela has been eating from a supply of brown rice that has been in his basement over 10 years. It is still wholesome! In another example, there is a family living near him who purchased a supply of food in #10 cans 30 years ago. Their basement hovers around 58oF. After 28 years, Mr. Portela took a sample of many of these items to the Benson Institute at BYU to have it tested. The results can be seen at the bottom of http://waltonfeed.com/portela.html Mr. Portela's welcome page. You will see everything tested had a 'good' to 'satisfactory' rating except for the eggs which had a 'minimum passing' rating. After 28 years I think it is most interesting that it passed at all. Mr. Portela tells me as 30 years have now passed, their storage is still in very good condition.
The bottom line is even with the very best packaging methods, if you are planning on storing your food in a warm environment, it will only last a fraction of the time it would last if stored in a cool, dry place. It is important you also find a place where the temperature remains constant. Frequent temperature changes shorten storage life. If you don't have a cool place for your food storage, plan on rotating your storage quickly enough to prevent food loss.
Factor #2: Product Moisture Content
By looking at the USDA nutritional tables, dry beans, grains, and flours contain an average of 10% moisture. Although it is very difficult and unnecessary to remove all moisture from dry foods, it is imperative that any food be stored as dry as possible. Foods with excess moisture can spoil right in their containers. This is an important consideration when packing food with dry ice as moisture condenses and freezes on the outer surface of the dry ice. For long term storage, grains should have a moisture content of 10% or less. It is difficult to accurately measure this without special equipment.
Factor #3: Atmosphere the product is stored in
Foods packed in air don't store as well as in oxygen free gasses. This is because air contains oxygen which oxidizes many of the compounds in food. Food storage companies have a couple of different processes for removing the oxygen:
Displacing the oxygen: This is done by purging out all the air in the product with an inert gas. Nitrogen is almost always used because it is the most inert gas known. People doing their own packing occasionally use dry ice which gives off carbon dioxide gas, and probably works just about as well.
Absorb the oxygen: Oxygen absorber packets do just that. Air contains about 78% nitrogen and 21% oxygen, leaving about 1% for the other gasses. If the oxygen is absorbed, what remains is 99% pure nitrogen in a partial vacuum.
If oxygen absorber packets are used, care must be taken to use a storage container that can stand some vacuum. As air is sucked into your container as the oxygen is absorbed, it reintroduces more oxygen that must be absorbed. Before long, the oxygen absorbers will have absorbed all the oxygen they can. Obviously, your product won't be oxygen free under these circumstances. Walton Feed gets around this problem with their plastic Super Pail buckets by purging the product first with nitrogen before tossing in the two oxygen absorber packets. This way the absorbers have little or no oxygen to absorb and don't create a vacuum within the pail. As cans work well under a partial vacuum, purging them with nitrogen isn't necessary before inserting the oxygen absorber packet and sealing the lid. Large seeds store better in nitrogen. On the other hand, small seeds, like many garden seeds store better in air. For this reason Walton cans their garden seed packs in air.
Factor #4: The container the product is stored in
To get the best storage life out of your product it must have a hermetic (air tight) seal. Containers that do this well are:
Whatever container you use, be sure it is food grade as your product can be tainted with whatever the container is made from. Plastic sacks are not good air tight containers, for even if they are sealed, the relatively thin plastic 'breathes,' allowing air to pass through. Paper sacks are of course even worse.
There is some concern as to how good a seal is made by the lids on plastic buckets used by food storage companies. Manufacturer studies show an extremely small amount of air transfer. This amount is so small, however, that it can be considered a hermetic seal. It has also been found that the lids can be re-used several times without dramatically degrading the performance of the seal.
People who purchase products from food storage providers are often concerned about receiving their buckets bulging or with one side collapsed in. Collapsed buckets occasionally occur when ordering from Walton's as the elevation of their packing facility is above 6,000 feet. As the buckets are shipped to a lower elevation, the increased ambient air pressure can sometimes push in one side. If a side is popped in, it is a great indication that the bucket is indeed sealed. And this also holds true for buckets that might be under a slight amount of pressure. If either condition concerns you, crack the lid to equalize the air pressure. You can do this without seriously degrading the storageability of the product within the bucket. Remember to re-seal the lid after doing this.
Bulging cans: Some bulging cans have been returned to Waltons. In almost every case, these cans held mixes that contained baking powder or soda. These cans were sent off for bacteria analysis and came back negative. It is believed that occasionally the extremely small amount of moisture found in the product interacts over time with the baking powder or soda and creates a small amount of carbon dioxide gas.
STORAGE LIFE NOTES ABOUT SPECIFIC FOODS
The Soft Grains
Soft Grains have softer outer shells which don't protect the seed interior as well as hard shelled seeds and therefore won't store as long. Hermetically sealed in the absence of oxygen, plan on a storage life of 8 years at a stable temperature of 70oF. They should keep proportionately longer if stored at cooler temperatures.
The Hard Grains
The Hard Grains all store well because of their hard outer shell which is nature's near perfect container. Remove that container and the contents rapidly deteriorate. Wheat, probably nature's longest storing seed, has been known to be edible after scores of years when stored in a cool dry place. As a general rule for hard grains, hermetically sealed in the absence of oxygen, plan on a storage life of 10-12 years at a stable temperature of 70oF. They should keep proportionately longer if stored at cooler temperatures.
As beans age they lose their oils, resist water absorption and won't swell. Worst case, they must be ground to be used. Storing beans in nitrogen helps prolong the loss of these oils as does cool temperatures. Hermetically sealed in the absence of oxygen, plan on a storage life of 8-10 years at a stable temperature of 70oF. They should keep proportionately longer if stored at cooler temperatures.
Dehydrated vegetables store well if hermetically sealed in the absence of oxygen. Plan on a storage life of 8-10 years at a stable temperature of 70oF. They should keep proportionately longer if stored at cooler temperatures.
Dehydrated Dairy Products
Dehydrated dairy products generally store very well if stored dry in hermetically sealed containers. Plan on a storage life of 15 years if stored at a stable temperature of 70oF. They should keep proportionately longer if stored at cooler temperatures. One exception is Morning Moo. As a new whey based product, it hasn't been tested for long term storage. Plan on rotating this product after 5 years.
Flours and Other Products Made From Cracked/Ground Seed
After seeds are broken open their outer shells can no longer protect the seed contents and seed nutrients start to degrade. Don't try to store unprotected flours longer than a year. Hermetically sealed in the absence of oxygen, plan on a storage life of 5 years at a stable temperature of 70oF. They should keep proportionately longer if stored at cooler temperatures.
Pasta will store longer than flour if kept dry. Hermetically sealed in the absence of oxygen, plan on a storage life of 8 - 10 years at a stable temperature of 70oF. Pasta should keep proportionately longer if stored at cooler temperatures.
Fruit doesn't keep as well as many dehydrated items. Hermetically sealed in the absence of oxygen, plan on a storage life of 5 years at a stable temperature of 70oF. They should keep proportionately longer if stored at cooler temperatures.
Honey, Salt and Sugar
Honey, salt and sugar should keep indefinitely if stored free of moisture. Watch out for additives in the honey. It is possible to buy honey with water and sugar added. This honey generally doesn't crystallize like pure 100% honey does when stored for a long time. If there are additives, there is no saying how long it will last.
Peanut Butter Powder
Peanut butter powder will not store as long as wheat flour. Hermetically sealed in the absence of oxygen, plan on a storage life of 4-5 years at a stable temperature of 70oF. It should keep proportionately longer if stored at cooler temperatures.
Brown and White Rices
Brown and white rices store very differently. Brown rice is only expected to store for 6 months under average conditions. This is because of the essential fatty acids in brown rice. These oils quickly go rancid as they oxidize. It will store much longer if refrigerated. White rice has the outer shell removed along with those fats. Because of this, white rice isn't nearly as good for you, but will store longer. Hermetically sealed in the absence of oxygen, plan on a storage life for white rice of 8-10 years at a stable temperature of 70oF. It should keep proportionately longer if stored at cooler temperatures.
Seeds or Sprouting Seeds
All viable seeds are hibernating tiny living plants that only need moisture and warmth to sprout. And much like a chick in an egg, all the nutrients this little life needs to spring into existence is contained within it's shell.
Like boiling an egg, heating a seed will kill that little life within it. However, unlike an egg, a seed can withstand cold temperatures. As seeds usually remain edible after the life within it dies, we must use different criteria when determining sproutable seed storage life. And again the big deciding factor is temperature. The big seed companies freeze their seed between seasons to promote long life. Of course, you can also do the same thing. Plan on a storage life of 4 years at a stable temperature of 70oF. They should keep proportionately longer if stored at cooler temperatures. Rita Bingham's Sprouting Book suggests that "Vacuum sealed or nitrogen treated seeds store longest, with a shelf life of up to 15 years." This is presupposing they are kept very cool or frozen.
Alfalfa is a unique seed as it actually germinates better if the seed is 2 or 3 years old. Most any sample of alfalfa contains 'hard' seed and 'soft' seed. Soft seed germinates within two days while hard seed germinates in about a week. The problem is, by the time the soft seed sprouts are ready to harvest, the hard seed may not have germinated yet. As storage time draws on, the hard seed turns into soft seed. Older seed germinates closer together. Stored in good conditions, alfalfa seed should have a good percentage of germination up until it is 8 years old.
Total Vegetable Protein, made from soy beans, has an unusually long storage life. Hermetically sealed in the absence of oxygen, plan on a storage life of 15-20 years at a stable temperature of 70oF. TVP should keep proportionately longer if stored at cooler temperatures.
Yeast, a living organism, has a relatively short storage life. Keep yeast in the original metal foil storage containers. If the seal remains intact, yeast should last 2 years at 70oF. However it is strongly recommended that you refrigerate it, which should give you a storage life of 5 years. Frozen yeast should store for a long time.
All contents © 1996-2000, Al Durtschi. All rights reserved. This information may be used by you freely for noncommercial use with my name and E-mail address attached. Revised: 3 Dec 1996
Al Durtschi, E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org