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Spices, staples have a shelflife, too

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Updated: February 11, 2013 6:08AM



We are a nation of hoarders. We like our stuff and we have a hard time parting with too much of it, even after it has lost its relevance or potency, even after it no longer fits or works, even though it can make us sick.

January, however, brings self-examination, if not self-reproach. Suddenly, we see ourselves in a negative, some may say realistic, light. We’re too fat, too lazy, too pack-ratty. And, for a brief moment, we believe this is the time to act on that. I can’t help you with the fat or the laziness, but I can with the mess. Or, at least I can bring in someone who can.

Lela Iliopoulos is a registered dietitian at Palos Community Hospital. She is here today to jumpstart our new better organized, healthier self.

And that new life begins in the kitchen, where spices you received as wedding shower gifts decades ago still stand beside sacks of flour that are, well, God knows how old. Nearby, we have some kind of frozen thing, meat perhaps, that’s been in that freezer since the first “Harry Potter” book hit the shelves.

Time’s up, old food products. Prepare to hit the Hefty bag.

Iliopoulos said, “We think just because a product is ‘dry’ that it will keep forever, but the truth is it can lose nutrients and flavor. It can also grow bacteria, mold and yeast.”

Sometimes we simply forget about things in the back of the cupboard; out of sight, out of mind. And sometimes we go hog wild over a great sale, snapping up more boxes of cake mix than we really need, she said.

Granted, it is not always easy to toss food into the trash. It makes us feel wasteful, not to mention vulnerable. Still, in the interest of health and flavor, we should ferret out the old.

With that thought in mind, let us begin to dig out.

First off, know the lingo

There are different types of package dating.

“Sell-by” tells the store how long to display the product for sale. You should purchase the product before the date expires.

“Best if used by (or before)” is the date recommended for best flavor or quality. It is not a purchase or safety date

“Use-by” is the last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality. The date has been determined by the manufacturer of the product. This date is not a guarantee of uncontaminated product once the package has been opened.

“Closed or coded dates” are packing numbers for use by the manufacturer.

Now, on to those items that may not carry an expiration date, for various reasons.

We’ll start with the spice shelf/cabinet. Old spices are probably OK to eat, Iliopoulos says, but the flavor will likely be lacking and the color won’t be as vivid.

Iliopoulos says, as a general rule, keep herbs and ground spices for one year and whole spices for two. “I would also go by the smell to gauge. If a spice or herb smells strong and flavorful, it is probably still potent,” she said. “You can check an herb or a ground spice by rubbing a small amount in your hand. If the aroma is fresh, rich and immediate, it can still flavor foods.”

To check a whole spice, such as a clove or cinnamon stick, break, crush or scrape it before smelling it. The initial quality of the spice or herb will influence shelf life, which is hard to know.

To retain the color of spices, it is best to store paprika, chili powder and red pepper in the fridge, she said.

What about staples?

“Foods left too long in our pantry are not always unsafe to eat, but they lose their quality,” Iliopoulos said. “It is possible the nutrients are lost and bacteria, mold and yeast may start to grow.”

For foods such as pancake mix, flour, sugar and coffee, which often get placed in canisters, their expiration-date packaging being tossed after purchase, Iliopoulos says, “I would keep flour 12 months, cake and mixes maybe six-nine months, canned items probably 9-12 months; vacuum-packed coffee one year; coffee cans two years; pasta about one year.”

She advises home cooks to label canisters, perhaps by placing a (removable) sticker on the bottom with the date of expiration.

While we’re at it, consider oil. As long as it’s stored away from heat and light, Iliopoulos said, an unopened bottle of good quality olive oil should be OK for up to two years from the date it was bottled as long it is stored away from heat and light. Once the bottle is opened, it should be used within a few months.

Open the freezer

She said it is a good idea to label foods yourself when freezing with a “made on” date or “throw out by” date. General guidelines for meat in freezer are, in months:

Beef, 6-12; pork, 4-12; ground meat, 3-4; leftover meats, 2-3; fresh poultry, 9-12; cooked poultry, 4-6; fish, 3-6; fruits and veggies, 8-12;

Now that we’ve established some guidelines for clearing out, let’s look ahead.

Here are some tips for being better food manager:

1. Practice proper storage, regular inventory and “clean-up” of your pantry.

2. Use a permanent marker (Sharpie) to label the date of purchase right on the container or can.

3. Rotate your items so the ones that expire first are in the front.

4. Clean the pantry at regular intervals, such as monthly or seasonally.

5. Store spices and herbs in tightly covered containers; store in a dark place away from sunlight, maybe inside cupboard or drawer; avoid storage above dishwasher, microwave, stove, or refrigerator, or near a sink or heating vent; spice racks should be away from heat, light, and moisture.

6. Like the saying says, “when in doubt, throw it out.”

“It’s not worth risking your health if you have your doubts about a particular food,” Iliopoulos said.



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