Our greatest priority in preparedness should be long-term food storage, simply because any catastrophic event will affect the supply chain and food will quickly become scarce.
But while food storage has significant value and provides us all with a level of security, there are some realities affecting food storage that we need to both understand and manage. If we fail to do so, we may find that our well-planned storage has failed on levels we hadn’t anticipated nor imagined.
What’s critical to understand is that most stated shelf-life statistics assume an ideal storage environment. The question we have to ask ourselves is: What is that environment and to what degree can we provide it? In that regard, the purpose of this article is not to list endless shelf-life possibilities, but to clearly identify the success factors and failure points that affect shelf life for any type of food.
The 8 “Secret Essentials”
- Food type
- Packaging integrity
- Keeping away rodents and insects
A fascinating discovery recently took place in the Antarctic that impacted how we view food storage. The base camp of Sir Robert Scott – the British man who died in 1912 while exploring the region — was discovered. One of the huts had canned foods and other food products that were still edible and free of bacteria after more than 100 years. The reason was largely due to the below-freezing temperatures that permeated the hut. The lesson is clear: The lower the temperature, the longer your food stores will last. That’s why a basement or other root-cellar type of environment is preferable to an attic or a part of your home that is hotter or heated during the winter.
Humidity is the most significant threat to long-term food-storage. It promotes both bacterial growth and mold growth. And it can happen in what you believe is the most hermetically sealed canisters you have. I had an experience where my wife needed significant amounts of sugar for Christmas cookies and desserts. Unfortunately, blizzards were dominating our area and travel was impossible. I laughed as I remembered that I had a five gallon bucket of sugar in our basement that had been sitting there for 10 years. The projected shelf life was 30 years and I figured, “No worries.” I was wrong. When we opened it, the smell of mildew was so over-powering that we couldn’t wait to get the can out the back door and onto the deck. Everything about the seal seemed intact, but moisture finds a way.
This is not only true for any package that could have moisture seepage, but also true for something as seemingly indestructible as a sealed, metal #10 can. Corrosion is common in moist environments and even the best metal in a #10 can succumb to corrosion in high levels of moisture.
Some companies enclose a packet of moisture absorbing crystals inside, but these are mostly designed to remove any residual moisture in the canned or packaged product. The point is, don’t store your long-term food-stores in a moist or wet environment. If your basement has that tendency, you might want to find an alternative storage location that still provides some level of low to average temperatures without excess humidity.
It’s ironic, but a molecule that all animals depend on for life on Earth is one of the most corrosive and destructive elements in the universe. While we breath oxygen deeply it both compromises and corrodes our long-term food storage. Some long-term food storage companies actually evacuate all oxygen from their canned or sealed products, and some inject nitrogen gas to fill the void and prevent oxygen from entering.
If you have purchased a hermetically sealed package such as a #10 can or a foil wrapped grain package with sufficient thickness or “mils” for the foil, you probably will avoid this oxygen problem. Many home-canned or cured meats may not fare as well. You realistically can’t remove oxygen from your living environment, but properly packaged long-term products will strive to reduce or eliminate oxygen to prevent it from compromising your food stores.
When we talk about light, we’re talking about sunlight. Sunlight deteriorates food products quickly due to the ultra-violet or UV light that dominates sunlight. It’s one of the reasons beer bottles are usually bottled in brown glass to reduce and diffuse the effects of UV light. This typically isn’t a problem for many long-term food stores, but if you preserve your own foods, whether they be fruits or vegetables, you’re probably using clear, glass jars. Keep them out of the light, especially sunlight.
5. Food type
Anyone with any experience with home-canning and food preservation will tell you that certain foods lend themselves to preservation better than others. Typically, acidic foods like tomatoes and citrus fruits will preserve better given the fact that their natural acids retard bacterial growth.
Of equal consideration are foods that are naturally dry or dried such as pastas, whole grains, beans and grains like rice and quinoa or amaranth. What’s critical again is to seal out humidity and in the case of some grains – insects.
Meats, fresh fish, and other proteins like poultry are the most problematic when it comes to long-term food storage. Unless they are salted and essentially desiccated of all moisture, their shelf life tends to be short and variable. On the other hand, a jar of honey discovered in an ancient Egyptian tomb after 3,000 years was found to be both bacteria-free and edible as if it was harvested yesterday. Food type matters.
Once again, the standard rules related to temperature, humidity, light and oxygen apply to any food type.
6. Packaging integrity
Think about this whenever you consider any long-term food purchase. What does the manufacturer have to say about the packaging?
- Are they hermetically sealed, meaning that no oxygen can enter?
- Has any oxygen been vacuumed from the package?
- Is there a moisture absorber or some type of crystals to absorb any residual moisture?
- What is the material used to package the product? Metal? (What kind?) Plastic? “How thick?” Foil? (How many mils or relative thickness?)
- Other features or benefits?
The premium suppliers will provide significant information with regards to packaging details, projected shelf-life and the usual advice about storage and temperatures. They’ll also answer your questions. The key is to make sure you’re purchasing a quality product in a quality package so you can do your best to maintain a healthy and viable food-storage plan.
7. Keeping away rodents and insects
It would seem that a sound and robust packaging solution would prevent rodents and insects from compromising your food storage. That’s what I thought until I found that some mice had chewed through a thick plastic box to later chew through a very thick layer of foil surrounding some whole grain wheat. Once they had accessed the wheat, their population exploded and then the ants joined the party. Shame on me. I had not paid much attention to this storage area and only did so when the mouse problem in the basement started to show up in the kitchen.
The fact of the matter is that mice can’t chew through metal and can’t chew glass, either. But don’t assume for a minute that a starving field mouse won’t find his way through plastic or foil. Think twice about what and where you store and once again, packaging integrity is key to keeping these pests away. Of course, mousetraps help, too.
We’ve all heard it many times: “Eat what you store and store what you eat.” And how many of us really do that? It’s hard when we have food storage products touting a shelf life of 10 to 20 years. Our tendency is to tuck them away and know they’re available if and when catastrophe happens. And that’s a problem. There are numerous benefits to the “eat what you store and store what you eat” philosophy. Here are a few:
- It forces us to take stock and inspect our food stores. Do I have a moisture problem? Are there any rodents or insects in evidence? Are any of the cans or other containers compromised? And maybe most importantly a simple reminder of: “What exactly do I have down here?”
- It teaches us how to cook this stuff. I remember whipping up some tacos with some textured vegetable protein (TVP) with a taco flavor. It was horrible. I didn’t like it, my kids didn’t like it, and my wife hated it. I was ready to throw the can away until I talked to a friend. He suggested I try it as an ingredient with some dehydrated vegetables and some seasonings. He was right, and it was better.
- You might find out you love some of this stuff. My kids love Mac and Cheese and I’m a bit partial to it, too. I grabbed a can of elbow macaroni and another can of cheese powder and whipped some up. It was great! And way cheaper than any boxed macaroni at the grocery store, including the store brands. This was actually a pivotal point for me, as it related to our long-term food stores and the whole “eat what you store” idea. What else was down there that sounded good for someday that would actually be great tomorrow?
It may seem like a lot to consider, but the telegram is simple. Any thoughts you have about the shelf life of any long-term food storage is directly proportional to how you store and treat the supply. If you keep some of these tips in mind and remember to “eat what you store,” you should be able to not only protect the integrity of your foods, but enjoy them each day as well.