REDUCING FOOD WASTE: Understanding how long preserved foods are “good”

I started Can-Do Real Food after working part of one growing season at a farm and becoming aware for the first time just how much food never even reaches people who want to eat. Farmers regularly pull aside veggies and fruit that are imperfectly shaped or start aging while new produce is being harvested. Consumers want the best looking stuff, of course, so farmers are used to feeding their imperfect items into the compost pile or as additives to chicken or pig food.

While I take responsibility for reducing food waste once it gets to me, I very much understand that the volume that ends up in my compost pile instead of my stomach is a teeny tiny amount of waste compared to other places along the food supply line. However, I still want to reduce that as much as possible. After all, I am also wasting my money to purchase food if I have to throw it away! One way is to be aware of those dates that are stamped or written on all commercially prepared foods and to understand them. Then you can apply the same concept to your own home-preserved items, whether they are frozen, canned, dehydrated, smoked or fermented.

One of the conundrums as a commercial food processor was that I had was to determine WHICH standard to use: “use by” or “best by”. There are NO guidelines from the government other than the mandate I use something!

“Use by” implies that the food is unsafe after that date. I know I stopped my youngest from pouring out a half-empty gallon of milk because the “use by date” had passed. You can imagine the “mean mommy” experience that required him to actually sniff (okay, it smells okay) and TASTE (do I have to? YES!) to teach that there is no magic event that instantly occurs that makes something bad at a specific date.

The mayo I purchased a month or so ago has a Best By date with plenty of time to use in other households but we don’t use mayo much……..

A word here that expiration dates on medication also has some wiggle room but I am not an expert on this. If you wonder if you can take something that “expired” 5 years ago……ask! A pharmacist is a good resource.

Back to food. I preferred to use “best by”. In the first season when I learned to can I put up some carrots. I dated my jar and never reached for it until a couple of years later when I was making soup and thought carrots would be a good addition but had none in the frig. I checked the seal….good. I looked at the contents inside the jar. The color was appropriate and there were no little bubbles of gas in the liquid, so far so good. I opened it….no bad aroma. So far all signs show it is SAFE to eat.

But when I put a fork in to pull a carrot out, it dissolved immediately into an orange cloud. It was certainly past the BEST time to enjoy it.

So, since then I put the date on the lid with what it is. (I am long past trying to convince myself I will remember what that jar of bluish-purple color jam is or which spice mix is in that tomato mix in that jar.) I put new jars behind any older ones of the same recipe when I store on my shelves. That way, the older stuff SHOULD be used first.

And remember, share. Seriously, if you have not eaten that jar of peaches that you put up in 1999, please toss it. If it’s from 2016, open one and if it is okay, plan how to use them. And do not make more until you do!

Our State Fair award-winning instant soup…and here is the one in MY cupboard, showing a best by date of last July. I know that means I prepared the mix in June from the pumpkins’ harvest in the fall of 2018. It is dry and good for at least 5 years or longer. That is one of the joys of dehydrated foods.

So, bottom line: besides the fact that this shows one more advantage that dehydrated foods hold longer safely than canned products, most are SAFE to eat beyond the date on the container, but the texture may be diminished the longer you move from initial processing.

What’s On a Label?

Remember how Oregon had a referendum about requiring food makers who use ingredients which are from genetically engineered plants to have to specify them on the label?  Remember the desire to “know”?

Even though that referendum did not pass, you CAN know certain things from labels.  I wrote about the newest label requirements by the government for a year-round local food market in West Virginia a few years ago.  There are may rules, but Can-Do Real Food is exempt from a few because of our small size.

Some people have asked me for nutritional information; most of the time I’m asked for the total sugar grams. I don’t know. I can tell you how many grams of sugar goes into the recipe, and I suppose a mathematical extrapolation could be done by someone who has the time, but I personally have no idea if that is how the number is figured out for the serving size.

I’m not required to include that (and a few other things) on my labels because we are tiny. The government does not make many exemptions from the regulations for small companies but this is one, so basically I save money and time because I need not provide samples at some lab (no where near McMinnville) and pay a fee so a food lab technician can run a test that provides the nutritional breakdown.

So, sorry, I don’t know. If you need to avoid sugar the best I can tell you is not to eat my jams.  I usually have some dehydrated fruit available if you want fruit without added sugar.

However, I can tell you this:

  • Food produced by Can-Do Real Food is made almost completely from local ingredients. Our exceptions are spices, vinegar, oil, sugar, citrus, chocolate, and coffee. The last two are obtained from local processors who procure the raw ingredients from Fair Trade farms and roast and do what they do in their shops in Portland and Newberg. All other raw ingredients are grown nearby.
  • Our partner farms are either certified Organic and/or Biodynamic or are in the lengthy process. They grow with organic methods. The ONLY exception to this are the hazelnuts. There are some organic hazelnut farms in the area but the cost, already high, restricts the consideration. I have talked to commercial hazelnut farmers as well as one of our partner farms which has a long neglected hazelnut orchard. Those neglected trees, untreated by my partner, had almost no edible nuts. The commercial farmer explained the various parasites that can destroy a crop. We make several products with the local hazelnuts: butter (plain and chocolate) as well as adding them to one canned yummy (plum conserve).
  • We also obtain produce from what I call “backyard gardeners.” These are our neighbors who have a fruit tree or bush or a garden that is just being way more productive than they can personally use. We ask if there is any chemical application to their produce and only accept those that have not been treated.
  • We chose to not use any additional preservatives. The sugar in the jams is the primary factor to keep away botulism. The recipes that have added lemon juice or vinegar have been rigorously tested at the food lab and then approved by a food scientist at Oregon State University who is the Processing Authority for the state. He indicates specific instructions of how the recipe is to be produced and no deviation is ever acceptable.  The level of acid is what helps preserve the food to be safe for eating once canned.  We typically do not add salt to our recipes. We had one comment that the Loaded Pasta Sauce was not as good the second year as it was the first. The major difference, besides our sneaky addition of zucchini, was that we got the recipe approved without added sugar or salt. This permits people who have restricted sodium to enjoy our sauce, and everyone else can add a little if they prefer. So salt, also a natural preservative, is not used in any way for food safety. We do, however, have a line of gourmet salts, and of course these are salt, so the food safety issue is a sure thing.
  • We do not use emulsifiers besides the pectin as called for in some recipes. So, our culinary syrups are not as thick as others you can buy at the supermarket.
  • We started using nutritional yeast in some of our dehydrated products. On commercial food labels this may be one of the ingredients that can be listed “natural flavorings”.  When we were developing our dried soup mixes in the Test Kitchen over a year ago we felt something was missing. Normally, if we were cooking at home we would start with a broth, either homemade or commercially produced. The long slow simmering of the bones or the vegetables is what helps give a homemade soup that deep rich flavor. But we wanted to provide a soup mix that would be ready in a short time (3 minutes to 45 minutes, depending on which soup mix) and we do not have a license to include meat in our products. Immediately we realized there is something we used at home, made from nonmeat sources that boosts flavor. Developed in Great Britain during World War II because of the shortage of meat at home, Marmite is a high protein paste made from nutritional yeast.  We were able to identify (one of the fun conventions and expos I visit during the off-season) several producers of powdered nutritional yeast that can boost the flavor of our recipes. I use the term “nutritional yeast” on the label because I personally dislike the all encompassing “natural flavors” that is the suggested listing.

We are proud to say “No artificial anything.”

What else can you tell from my label?

Well, the photo will either be a picture of what the stuff inside looked like while it was cooking or the raw ingredients in the mix. 

The side panel has all the legal requirements taken care of. First, my name and location so you can find me. Then, the ingredient list. I will never be able to call any of my products “organic” as the kitchen is not a certified organic kitchen, but when my ingredients are certified organic, they will be noted in the list.

Also, a reminder to store the opened but not emptied jar in the frig. By the way, how long something will last in the refrigerator is is also a common question. For something like the pasta sauce, I say to use it within 2 weeks. Something high in sugar like the jams, will last longer. I open a lot of jars to offer tastings at the farmers’ market and keep them on ice while there. They get put in the frig as soon as we get home. I just tossed a half empty jar of one we offered for tasting back in early December, so that lasted over 4 months.

The weight or volume of the product is next…..jars are in volume. The dried yummies are by weight. The next item is a batch number. It helps me know immediately when I made it and where the main ingredients came from.  If I need to have a recall, I will issue it with a batch number like that.

The last item is the “best by” date. Here the government gets fuzzy in their logic, not that they do that anywhere else, eh?  They require food processors to put something in there like a “use by” or “expired by” or a “best by” date. But they have no standards for canned and dehydrated foods. Personally, I do not like “use by” or “expired by” dates because they may result in perfectly good food being thrown out. How many times has that milk been okay for a week after the date on the carton or bottle?  Preserved foods typically last a long long time. How many people have a grandmother who cans? Ask her when to throw away unopened jars and she will probably look at you with “that” look you try to avoid.  However, there are some foods, even when safe to eat, that lose their appeal. I canned some carrots and opened the jar about 18 months later…..they were kind of mushy, not at all the quality a similar jar had been at 12 months. I typically put 13 months in my “best by” but would much more prefer you to eat it up and come back the next week to buy more!

If you have a question about the products that are not now currently on the labels, let me know. Also, our slow season is now over. The Downtown Farmers’ market starts this coming week so we are in prep mode and will be in the Kitchen one day each week for a while. When that changes to our normal three-day Kitchen week depends on Mother Nature.