By Denis Korn
30 Year Shelf Life for Food Storage? Where did this longevity figure come from?
I want to begin this article with a very brief explanation of my background and a little industry history so you will know where I am coming from concerning this subject. I have been in the preparedness industry for over 35 years specializing in shelf stable foods for emergency preparedness and outdoor recreation. In 1975, in my natural foods store, I was selling dehydrated foods in #10 cans – an appropriate variety of freeze-dried products were not yet available for dried food canning. Only a few canners were offering any reasonable selection of quality dehydrated, whole grain, and powdered foods. Packing techniques were also limited, as the oxygen absorber was not yet available (as a side note – it was I who first started using oxygen absorbers in the Gourmet Reserves line of dried food canning in the early 1990’s when I owned AlpineAire Foods), and effective nitrogen flushing equipment was not being utilized.
At that time there was no solid evidence as to a viable shelf life for canned dehydrated vegetables, fruits, dairy products, powers, flours, or other foods commonly found in #10 cans. When talking to folks in the industry 5 to 10 years shelf life (at about room temperature – at a very low temperature shelf life could be increased) was the norm depending on the specific food and the oil content (oils turn rancid in the presence of oxygen and if the temperature is too high). Whole grains and beans would last longer.
Around 1975 or so freeze-dried foods for backpackers and adventurers – in vacuum packed pouches – was just becoming available as a result of the end of the Viet Nam war. Oregon Freeze Dry foods (Mountain House) had supplied the military with special freeze-dried rations for troops needing light weight, shelf stable, and easy to reconstitute foods. When the demand from the military declined they focused on the civilian market.
Around the late 1970’s to 1980 or so Oregon Freeze Dry started canning freeze-dried meals and individual ingredients in #10 cans using nitrogen flushing equipment to reduce the residual oxygen level to under 2% (military specifications). At this time Oregon Freeze-Dried did not pursue the civilian food storage market.
About 1989 as owner of AlpineAire Foods, I expanded our pouched line and introduced the Gourmet Reserves line of #10 and # 2 1/2 size cans of no cooking required dried foods. It utilized a combination of freeze-dried and many other types of ingredients; all low moisture, shelf stable, and included pre-blended meals and individual ingredients. I too began with gas flushing. In 1990 I chose to use oxygen absorbers because it was a superior technology, easy to implement, and very cost effective. At this time the shelf life conversation moved to 7 to 15 years depending on the specific product.
Over time more companies adopted the use of oxygen absorbers and the availability of freeze-dried ingredients increased. Because of the technology involved and the very low moisture of freeze-dried foods, food quality retention and shelf live can be enhanced. As time passed shelf live endurance increased for those companies with better-quality products; as folks discovered their foods were tasteful and still OK when opening their canned foods and trying them out.
We now move to the present. A short time back Oregon Freeze Dry opened some products they had canned about 30 years ago and found them to be palatable and without any problems. Their distributors heard about this and began to market Oregon Freeze Dry as having a 30 year shelf life. This is of course good news for all major canners of freeze-dried foods, especially AlpineAire’s Gourmet Reserve line – that has had periodic testing – and who also uses quality ingredients and procedures in their canning process.
There are however some important points to emphasize and facts to know about:
- Over the years, although some of the major canners’ products had a long shelf life, inferior products produced by less qualified canners got on the long shelf life bandwagon – because it sold their product when they told the customer what they wanted to hear – even though these companies were using different ingredients and canning techniques and they had no reliable evidence their products lasted as long as stated. Their estimates were simply made up.
- This practice of fabricating the shelf life of some food storage products continues to this day.
- Keep in mind that this 30 year figure is the result of the taste testing of a limited number of canned freeze-dried foods by a company with food processing and canning expertise and who utilized the proper technology available at that time.
- Because Oregon Freeze Dry uses their own proprietary freeze-drying methodology and canning procedures, it is inappropriate for almost every company in the marketplace today to claim its products will last for up to 30 years.
- It is also inappropriate and unreasonable for customers to expect all food storage methodologies to insure a 30 year shelf life. This includes foods packed in plastic buckets, foods in “Mylar” bags, foods in foil pouches, do-it-yourself packed foods, and the numerous foods that do not have the proper specifications and qualities for long term storage. This would include higher moisture foods, high oil content foods, some powders and flours, and many other foods that are not able to retain nutrition and taste characteristics over a prolonged period of time.
- Understand that properly packed whole grains and beans (note: beans can become so dry and hard over time that cooking them can be difficult to impossible) can have a very long shelf life.
- Any discussion of shelf life must include the storage conditions and packaging being utilized. Become informed of the optimal environment for long term food storage.
- I can not over-emphasize the need for preparedness planners to hold canners and other suppliers of food storage products accountable for the claims they make about shelf life. The shelf life of one’s food reserves is the number one question preparedness planners ask of suppliers – and the answers can be terribly misleading. In my 35 years I have heard it all. There is so much misinformation, confusion, and outright deception it is imperative that you find an experienced and knowledgeable expert before you invest in such an important provision. How many people do you know who have eaten 30 year old food? 20 year old food? 10 year old food? Ask the important questions and insist on the accurate answers. Don’t get caught up in believing what you want to hear – most of your shelf life issues are resolved by common sense and a realistic assessment of the scenarios and time frames for which you are planning.
You are invited to read these other articles related to the subjects covered in this article.