By Denis Korn
The purpose of this article is to present specific details and recommendations for packing your own shelf stable foods for food storage, including what works and what doesn’t in creating an oxygen free atmosphere for long term food storage, and the common misconceptions of how to do your own packing will be covered. While there are many different types of dried foods that can be stored for extended periods of time, most folks are interested in how best to store grain and bean products.
Some material will be repeated in this article that has been covered in previous articles concerning the use of oxygen absorbers, storage conditions, and 30 year shelf life claims. While I could write a book on every specific detail of every packing option and all the technical specifications of all available packing containers, it is not the purpose of this article. I will cover important highlights, facts, insights, and information gained from over 35 years in the preparedness and outdoor recreation industry. It is important to keep in mind that I have not only been a retailer of preparedness and outdoor foods, I have been a manufacturer, developer of hundreds of recipes, packaging and product innovator, and researcher of shelf stable foods.
Some of the material presented here will contradict and challenge information available on the web or in some do-it-yourself circles. Many people assume preparedness information to be accurate without careful consideration of the expertise of the source or the validity of the facts. I encourage you to research on your own any of the information presented in this article – or in any article for that matter – and to use basic critical thinking skills to evaluate the evidence and data you are offered. A little common sense goes a long way in assessing many of the claims being made about shelf life and do-it-yourself issues. I talk about the issue of trust and reliability in my articles: Who do you Trust?, The Research and Evaluation Process, and Purchasing Food Reserves – The Essential Questions.
Before you start packing your foods, be clear about what it is you want to store and for how long. Are the foods appropriate for your plans? Do you know how to prepare them? Do you have an adequate quantity? Do you have all the equipment necessary to prepare your foods? What is the nutritional quality? I suggest you study the key foundational information in my article Beginning and Improving Preparedness Planning.
This is an article dealing with dry food products with a low to very low moisture content – depending upon the item usually between 2 and about 10 %. Products can include grains, beans, seeds, dehydrated or freeze-dried fruits and vegetables, seasonings, and powders and flours.
Grains and beans can be whole or processed into numerous forms. Keep in mind that when a whole grain or bean is processed it can compromise the integrity of a natural barrier, expose any oils, and begin a process of oxidation or rancidity leading to a shortened shelf life. Some processed bean products, such as TVP (Textured Vegetable Protein) have been defatted to insure a longer shelf life, and some grains have naturally lower oil content. Because of the position of the germ in rice, brown rice is not appropriate for long term storage. Also, because white flour has no wheat germ, it will last significantly longer than whole wheat flour. Research the products you are storing to determine both the moisture and oil content.
What are the goals and expectations for your food preparedness planning? What are you hoping to accomplish and for whom and how many? How realistic are your plans? How long do you want your stored foods to be palatable – edible – nutritious – agreeable? Be honest. I once again refer you to another very helpful article in assisting you in preparedness planning: The 12 Crucial Questions of Preparedness Planning.
Why oxygen free?
At the end of this article I have included information on the 6 critical conditions for storing food. In this section we explore the need for an oxygen free atmosphere when storing food for long periods. Basically there are 2 reasons for wanting to store food in an oxygen free environment – eliminate the possibility for infestation from insects and microorganisms, and control oxidation, which leads to the rancidity of fats and oils, foul taste, off color, and nutritional deterioration. The lower the oxygen levels – the more effective in preserving the integrity of the foods stored. Some foods are more susceptible to oxidation deterioration than others. It is important to know how susceptible the foods you are storing are to oxidation, because as you will see the type of container you store your foods in may at some point no longer be an adequate oxygen barrier. Research by Mitsubishi Gas Chemical Company, the inventors of oxygen absorbers and manufacturer of the Ageless® brand absorber, indicates that in an oxygen free atmosphere (their absorbers can reduce the residual oxygen level in the proper container to 0.1% or less) all adults, larvae, pupae, and eggs of the most prevalent dry food insects are killed within 14 days.
If oxidation and elimination of all stages in an insect’s development by eliminating available oxygen is not an issue, there are other methods that can be utilized with varying effectiveness in controlling insect infestation. Options include:
- Exposure to freezing temperatures for an adequate length of time
- Using bay leaves and other aromatic herbs to inhibit insect reproduction
- Using food grade diatomaceous earth to kill adults (the microscopic very sharp texture of the particles pierce the bodies of the insects and they dehydrate and die). In this case the live adult must come into contact with the diatomaceous earth. Some folks put the material on the bottom of a container hoping the insects will go there, while others coat all the contents of a container with a fine layer of material and wash it off when it is time to consume the food.