Determining the storage life of foods is at best an inexact science as there are so many variables. These range from the condition your food was in when you first purchased it and includes many other factors. This information should be used as a general guide only, and should not be followed “as the gospel truth” because your results may be different.
Four Factors that effect food storage:
Factor #1: The Temperature
Temperature has more to do with how long well dried foods store than anything else. The USDA states, “Each 5.6 C. (10.08F) drop in temperature doubles the storage life of the seeds.” Obviously, there is a limit as to how far this statement can be taken. However I expect it basically holds true from room temperature down to freezing. No doubt, the inverse could also be considered true. “Each 5.6C. (10.08F) rise in temperature halves the storage life of seeds.” This theory holds true for non-garden seeds as well.
Let’s look at a couple of real life examples of good and poor food storage practices:
Consider an unopened paper bag of white flour which had been stored at 70 degrees F, in a dry climate. It has been sitting for 3 years in a closet. It makes fine looking bread but has such an ‘old’ and bad flavor that makes it was difficult to eat. For another example, a 4 gallon can of wheat that has been stored up high in a garage for about 30 years. In the summer the average garage still gets up into the 90’s. Even though wheat will store for 30+ years under good conditions, the bread from this particular wheat will be very bad tasting and after a few batches we’ll end up throwing the wheat away.
The experts give brown rice a 6 month storage life because of all the oils in it that go rancid. Yet, Mr. Portela has been eating from a supply of brown rice that has been in his basement over 10 years. It is still wholesome! In another example, there is a family living near him who purchased a supply of food in #10 cans 30 years ago. Their basement hovers around 58 degrees F. After 28 years, Mr. Portela took a sample of many of these items to the Benson Institute at BYU to have it tested. Everything tested had a ‘good’ to ‘satisfactory’ rating except for the eggs which had a ‘minimum passing’ rating.
The bottom line is even with the very best packaging methods, if you are planning on storing your food in a warm environment, it will only last a fraction of the time it would last if stored in a cool, dry place. It is important you also find a place where the temperature remains constant. Frequent temperature changes shorten storage life. If you don’t have a cool place for your food storage, plan on rotating your storage quickly enough to prevent food loss.
Factor #2: Product moisture content
By looking at the USDA nutritional tables, dry beans, grains, and flours contain an average of 10% moisture. Although it is very difficult and unnecessary to remove all moisture from dry foods, it is imperative that any food be stored as dry as possible. Foods with excess moisture can spoil right in their containers. This is an important consideration when packing food with dry ice as moisture condenses and freezes on the outer surface of the dry ice. For long term storage, grains should have a moisture content of 10% or less. It is difficult to accurately measure this without special equipment. See the misc.survivalism faqs for a quick and easy way of getting a rough estimate of the water content in your foods.
Factor #3: Atmosphere in which the product is stored
Foods packed in air don’t store as well as in oxygen free gasses. This is because air contains oxygen which oxidizes many of the compounds in food. Food storage companies have a couple of different processes for removing the oxygen:
Displacing the oxygen: This is done by purging out all the air in the product with an inert gas. Nitrogen is almost always used because it is the most inert gas known. People doing their own packing occasionally use dry ice which gives off carbon dioxide gas, and probably works just about as well.
Absorb the oxygen: Oxygen absorber packets do just that. Air contains about 78% nitrogen and 21% oxygen, leaving about 1% for the other gasses. If the oxygen is absorbed, what remains is 99% pure nitrogen in a partial vacuum.
If oxygen absorber packets are used, care must be taken to use a storage container that can stand some vacuum. As air is sucked into your container as the oxygen is absorbed, it reintroduces more oxygen that must be absorbed. Before long, the oxygen absorbers will have absorbed all the oxygen they can. Obviously, your product won’t be oxygen free under these circumstances. We get around this problem with our plastic Super Pail buckets by purging the product first with nitrogen before tossing in the two oxygen absorber packets. This way the absorbers have little or no oxygen to absorb and don’t create a vacuum within the pail. As cans work well under a partial vacuum, purging them with nitrogen isn’t necessary before inserting the oxygen absorber packet and sealing the lid.
Seeds store better in nitrogen. On the other hand, seeds you plan on sprouting, such as garden seed, or seeds set aside for growing your own sprouts store better in air. For this reason we can our garden seed packs in air.
Factor #4: The container in which the product is stored
To get the best storage life out of your product it must have a hermetic (air tight) seal. Containers that do this well are:
- #10 Cans
- Sealable food storage HDPE buckets
- Sealable food quality metal or plastic drums.
Whatever container you use, be sure it is food grade as your product can be tainted with whatever the container is made from. Plastic sacks are not good air tight containers, for even if they are sealed, the relatively thin plastic ‘breathes,’ allowing air to pass through. Paper sacks are of course even worse.
There is some concern as to how good a seal is made by the lids on plastic buckets used by food storage companies. Manufacturer studies show an extremely small amount of oxygen transference. This amount is so negligible however, it can be considered a hermetic seal. It has also been found that the lids can be re-used several times without dramatically degrading the performance of the seal.
Storage Life Notes About Specific Foods:
Soft Grains: Barley | Hulled or Pearled Oat Groats | Rolled Oats | Quinoa | Amaranth | Rye
Soft Grains have softer outer shells which don’t protect the seed interior as well as hard shelled seeds and therefore won’t store as long. Hermetically sealed in the absence of oxygen, plan on a storage life of 8 years at a stable temperature of 70 degrees F. They should keep proportionately longer if stored at cooler temperatures.
Hard Grains: Buckwheat | Corn, Dry | Flax | Kamut | Millet | Durum wheat | Hard red wheat | Hard white wheat | Soft wheat | Spelt| Triticale
The Hard Grains all store well because of their hard outer shell which is nature’s near perfect container. Remove that container and the contents rapidly deteriorate. Wheat, probably nature’s longest storing seed, has been known to be edible after scores of years when stored in a cool dry place. As a general rule for hard grains, hermetically sealed in the absence of oxygen, plan on a storage life of 10-12 years at a stable temperature of 70 degrees F. They should keep proportionately longer if stored at cooler temperatures.
Beans: Adzuki Beans | Blackeye Beans | Black Turtle Beans | Garbanzo Beans | Great Northern | Kidney Beans | Lentils | Lima Beans | Mung Beans | Pink Beans | Pinto Beans | Small Red Beans | Soy Beans
As beans age they lose their oils, resist water absorbtion and won’t swell. Worst case, they must be ground to be used. Storing beans in nitrogen helps prolong the loss of these oils as does cool temperatures. Hermetically sealed in the absence of oxygen, plan on a storage life of 8-10 years at a stable temperature of 70 degrees F. They should keep proportionately longer if stored at cooler temperatures.
Dehydrated vegetables store well if hermetically sealed in the absence of oxygen. Plan on a storage life of 8-10 years at a stable temperature of 70 degrees F. They should keep proportionately longer if stored at cooler temperatures.
Dehydrated Dairy Products
Dehydrated Dairy Products generally store very well if stored dry in hermetically sealed containers with the oxygen removed. Plan on a storage life of 15 years if stored at a stable temperature of 70 degrees F. They should keep proportionately longer if stored at cooler temperatures.
Flours and Other Products
Made From Cracked/Ground Seed
After seeds are broken open their outer shells can no longer protect the seed contents and seed nutrients start to degrade. Don’t try to store unprotected flours longer than a year. Hermetically sealed in the absence of oxygen, plan on a storage life of 5 years at a stable temperature of 70 degrees F. They should keep proportionately longer if stored at cooler temperatures. Note: Granola is not a long storing food because of the nuts. They contain high concentrations of oil which go rancid over the short term. Expect granola to last about 6-9 months.
Pasta will store longer than flour if kept dry. Hermetically sealed in the absence of oxygen, plan on a storage life of 8 – 10 years at a stable temperature of 70 degrees F. Pasta should keep proportionately longer if stored at cooler temperatures.
Fruit doesn’t keep as well as many dehydrated items. Hermetically sealed in the absence of oxygen, plan on a storage life of 5 years at a stable temperature of 70 degrees F. They should keep proportionately longer if stored at cooler temperatures.
Honey, Salt and Sugar
Honey, Salt and Sugar should keep indefinitely if stored free of moisture. Watch out for additives in the honey. It is possible to buy honey with water and sugar added. This honey generally doesn’t crystallize like pure 100% honey does when stored for a long time. If there are additives, there is no telling how long it will last.
Brown and White Rices
Brown and white rices store very differently. Brown rice is only expected to store for 6 months under average conditions. This is because of the essential fatty acids in brown rice. These oils quickly go rancid as they oxidize. It will store much longer if refrigerated. White rice has the outer shell removed along with those fats. Because of this, white rice isn’t nearly as good for you, but will store longer. Hermetically sealed in the absence of oxygen, plan on a storage life for white rice of 8-10 years at a stable temperature of 70 degrees F. It should keep proportionately longer if stored at cooler temperatures. Stored in the absence of oxygen, brown rice will last longer than if it was stored in air. Plan on 1 to 2 years. It is very important to store brown rice as cool as possible, for if you can get the temperature down another ten degrees, it will double the storage life again.
Garden Seed or Sprouting Seed
All viable seeds are hibernating tiny living plants that only need moisture and warmth to sprout. And much like a chick in an egg, all the nutrients this little life needs to spring into existence is contained within it’s shell. Like boiling an egg, heating a seed will kill that little life within it. However, unlike an egg, a seed can withstand cold temperatures. As seeds usually remain edible after the life within it dies, we must use different criteria when determining sproutable seed storage life. And again the big deciding factor is temperature. The big seed companies freeze their seed between seasons to promote long life. Of course, you can also do the same thing. Plan on a storage life of 4 years at a stable temperature of 70 degrees F. They should keep proportionately longer if stored at cooler temperatures. And remember, you want to store all of these seeds in air. Packed in nitrogen, the viability of some seeds will last longer than others. This is still to a large degree an unexplored science, and therefore we recommend you store all the seeds you plan on sprouting in air.
Alfalfa is a unique seed as it actually germinates better if the seed is 2 or 3 years old. Most any sample of alfalfa contains ‘hard’ seed and ‘soft’ seed. Soft seed germinates within two days while hard seed germinates in about a week. The problem is, by the time the soft seed sprouts are ready to harvest, the hard seed may not have germinated yet. As storage time draws on, the hard seed turns into soft seed. Older seed germinates closer together. Stored in cool conditions, alfalfa seed should have a good percentage of germination up until it is 8 years old.
Textured Vegetable Protein
Textured Vegetable Protein, made from soy beans, has an unusually long storage life. Hermetically sealed in the absence of oxygen, plan on a storage life of 15-20 years at a stable temperature of 70 degrees F. TVP should keep proportionately longer if stored at cooler temperatures.