Shelf life of different types of food including cooked, tinned and fresh foods.

Shelf life
As we know, all types of food products stay fresh for a different length of time and there are a number of factors that can affect the shelf life of a certain food.

Not only does the shelf life of your food depend on the way in which it has been stored at home; the way it has been handled, treated and stored before arriving at your local supermarket also plays a crucial role in how long your food will stay fresh.

This is extremely important particularly when dealing with highly perishable foods such as fresh meat, fish and poultry and to a slightly lesser degree, fresh fruit and vegetables.
There are many ways in which you can get the best out of your food and ensure that it stays as fresh as possible for as long as possible and below we have included some useful information and tips on how to store certain foods and for how long.

Buying your food

Where you buy your food is very important. You should always buy your food, especially highly perishable products and products that are susceptible to contamination, from a reliable source.

It is usually better to buy fresh produce from a big supermarket where there is a high turnover and the shelves are refilled every day. However, some supermarkets have large warehouses and storerooms where fresh food could be sitting in cardboard boxes for days before they are taken out onto the shop floor and stored correctly.

This could leave them more open to contamination, loss of freshness and nutritional value and damage.

Always inspect the produce before you buy it and don't buy anything that looks too dry, discoloured, limp, soft or generally not fresh. The same applies to packaging; don't buy any boxes or tins that are dented or any packets that have been ripped open or torn.

At the same time, supermarkets use a lot more chemicals and plastic packaging to store and preserve fresh produce, which may extend the shelf life of the food but perhaps to the detriment of the taste, nutritional value and your health.

Often food colouring and preservatives are added to meat to make it look fresher and some plastic wraps contain chemicals that are harmful to the body.

When purchasing meat or fish from your local butcher or fishmonger, you are able to keep more of a control on how far your food has travelled, how it has been reared, slaughtered, prepared and stored and how long it has been sitting on the shelf, which are all factors that affect not only the quality of the food that we are consuming but also how long it will stay fresh.

Buying fresh fruit and vegetables from your local market is often the most economical choice. There is usually a much wider variety of the same types of fruit and vegetable, although care must still be taken when buying.

Markets do not have the same standards as supermarkets when it comes to acquiring fresh produce from the farmer. Supermarkets are much more strict and will only accept fruits if they are the correct size, shape and quality, whereas markets will more or less accept any produce whatever the shape or size.

This has however led many people to complain that supermarket fruit and vegetables are losing their flavour and aroma, as farmers must ensure that appearance is the most important factor if they want to sell their produce.

To prolong the shelf life of highly perishable foods such as meat, poultry or fish, buy these items last if you are in a supermarket or just before returning home if you are in town.

Never leave these foods in the boot of your car whilst you continue to shop; they must be taken home as soon as possible after purchasing and stored in the refrigerator or freezer immediately upon returning home.

Storing your food

Different types of foods require different storage conditions and not all foods can be stored in the same way or for the same amount of time.

Some foods will need to be stored in the refrigerator, whilst others can be kept at room temperature in a cupboard or pantry. Freezing is a really useful way of extending the shelf life of a certain product and ensuring that it does not lose valuable nutrients. Foods that are going to be stored in the refrigerator or freezer should be done so as soon as possible.

To extend the shelf life of your fresh produce, it is not only vital that it is stored in the correct place in your kitchen, but how it is packaged and where it is positioned in comparison to other foods are also imperative. This will be discussed in more detail in the following sections.

Cooked and uncooked food

Fresh meat such as beef, lamb or pork can be stored in the refrigerator for up to 5 days before being cooked, but should be eaten within 2 - 3 days when cooked.

On the other hand poultry, fish and shellfish must be cooked within 1 or 2 days after purchase, but will stay fresher for longer once cooked and can be stored in the refrigerator for 3 - 4 days maximum.

Processed meats such as pre-packaged ham, sausages or salami, will stay fresher for longer, as they have been chemically manipulated and also contain additives and preservatives such as salt, sugar, vinegar or certain chemical compounds.

Cooked rice can be kept in the refrigerator for up to 5 - 7 days, however, with all leftover food, it is best consumed as soon as possible after cooking.

Opened and unopened food

Tinned foods should not be stored in the refrigerator. However, once a tin of food has been opened, it should be treated as if it were fresh. This means that when you open a tin of tuna fish or baked beans, the amount that you do not use should be stored in the refrigerator and will then only stay fresh for a matter of a few days.

Never store an open tin of food in the refrigerator. Always transfer the leftover tinned food into an airtight plastic container with a lid, as the tin and air will react with the contents and spoil the food.

With regards to other types of foods such as pasta, cereal, milk and various dairy products, they will always last longer if left unopened. Once a product is exposed to oxygen, heat, moisture and bacteria, the quality will start to deteriorate and its flavour, taste and appearance will begin to change.

This is the same for products such as fruit juice, mayonnaise and pate in a jar. These foods will stay fresh for several weeks if left unopened, however once opened they may need to be consumed within a much smaller period of time, usually a matter of days or weeks.

Once a food item is opened it is best to consume the product as quickly as possible.

Expiry dates

All foods will contain one form of dating on it. For foods that tend to stay fresher for longer, this will be a "best before" date, whilst highly perishable items usually contain a "use-by" date.

Use-by date

If a product indicates that it should be used by a certain date, you should consume or cook that item before or on the specific date on the packaging.

Once that date has passed, the food item will no longer be deemed fit for consumption according to the manufacturer and government health and safety specifications.

Meat, fish and poultry are the main items that have a use-by date, as they are the most perishable products and eating them past their use-by date may be harmful and could cause illness.

Throw away any items you still have in your fridge that have gone past their use-by date, even if they look and smell ok, although the chances are that they wouldn't.

Sell-by date

The sell-by date is not the same as the use-by date. It gives the consumer a bit more leeway with regards to when to cook and consume that product.

Consumers should purchase a product before or on their sell-by date and they then still have a certain amount of time in which to use that item before the expiry date, which is when the product would start to lose its freshness, quality and begin to go bad.

Best before date

Best before dates tend to apply to items that may keep fresh for several weeks, months or even years.

The best before date does not mean that a certain item must be consumed by that date, it is just an indication or estimate as to when a product will only start to lose its freshness, crispness and optimum quality.

The item may still be consumed after this date; only it won't taste as fresh as it should. This date, does of course apply to an unopened product and not an open one.

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