With more information on shelf life and evolving technology, production facilities can help reduce food waste, pathogenic bacteria growth, and improve quality of refrigerated foods. The shelf life of any food is influenced by ingredients, processing, and packaging. This week’s Tip of the Week is sponsored by AB Mauri and explores the amount of time in which the product remains acceptable to the consumer without a significant loss in quality or safety.
Aspects of shelf life include flavor, appearance, texture, and microbial growth such as molds. Changes in any of these aspects will lead a consumer to consider a product to be past its shelf life and no longer fresh.
Many manufacturers choose to put “best by” or “freshness” dates on packaging to give consumers guidelines on the acceptable shelf life, but there are no hard and fast rules. Each product will have its own shelf life. It is a good practice to use the “best by” dates to guide the usage of foods; however, some foods may still be acceptable to consume past the date.
Some food manufacturers conduct shelf life studies. They hold product and measure various organoleptic properties such as taste, flavor, appearance, and acceptance with sensory panels. For products with long shelf lives, the study can be a lengthy and expensive to test every product, so manufacturers often use similar products they offer.
Product shelf life can be extended with changes to ingredients in the formula. For products that rely on softness and moistness to have acceptable eating characteristics, enzymes can be added to modify the texture of the product over time. Moistness can be added by using hydrocolloids, starches, or gums to retain moistness in the product.
Microbial growth can be slowed during the shelf life by lowering the water activity or pH of a food. Additionally, preservatives can be added to slow or inhibit the growth of mold.
Robust packaging can be used to extend the shelf life of many products. For soft, moist products, packaging with a moisture barrier prevents the product from losing moisture and becoming dry. Other products with low moisture, such as crackers and cereals, can absorb moisture from the environment and lose crispness without moisture barriers in the packaging.
Modified atmosphere packages with the oxygen replaced by either carbon dioxide or nitrogen slow microbial growth and may extend shelf life. Some products are treated with ultra-high temperatures, UV, retorted, or irradiation to extend the length of time that microbial growth is slowed. Of course, once a package is opened, whether intentionally or unintentionally through damage, the product will deteriorate more quickly.
Wide temperature fluctuations in storage and distribution will impact a food’s shelf life. Refrigerated foods that experience temperatures that are too warm will deteriorate rapidly. Upon receiving refrigerated foods it’s important to check the temperature and quickly place them in a refrigerated area. This is the same for frozen foods that can deteriorate when they are allowed to thaw and then refreeze.