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The Secret Shelf Life — 7 Pantry Items You’re Keeping Too Long

We all have those items that get pushed to the back of our pantry shelves, forgotten, and neglected. But did you know some grocery store pantry items actually have surprisingly short shelf lives?

Here’s a quick test: How long has your opened peanut butter jar sat in your pantry? If you answered over three months, you should probably throw it out. 

If you’re guilty of holding on to pantry staples longer than you should, you’re not alone. To find out which pantry items you should probably toss, we’ve gathered some of the most common shelf-stable items and ran them through the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services Food Keeper app. Keep reading; you might be shocked by some of these!

7 Pantry Items You’re Keeping Too Long

1. Peanut butter

Peanut butter is one of those pantry items families either use a lot of or forget about. If kept in the pantry, a jar of peanut butter is only good for about two to three months after opening. Spoiled peanut butter will gain a darker color and smell soapy or metallic. Some people store their peanut butter in the fridge after opening; this extends its life up to six months instead of three.

Average Expiration: up to three months after opening

2. Olive oil

Olive oil has a surprisingly short shelf life of about five months after cracking open. But if you’ve left your opened bottle in the pantry for longer, you’re probably not alone. It’s easy to forget about a bottle of olive oil. If it’s gone bad, you won’t get that rich olive smell and will whiff more of a waxy aroma. Sometimes spoiled olive oil will also turn a brighter yellow color. If you’re unsure how long your bottle has been sitting in the pantry, look at its color and give it a smell before using it.

Average Expiration: three to five months after opening

3. Egg noodles

So you didn’t use all your egg noodles the last time you made chicken noodle soup, and now you have an opened bag sitting in your pantry. Most people don’t know that egg noodles go bad about two months after opening. Egg noodles are not like their other pasta cousins. Because they mainly contain eggs, their best-by date is much sooner than regular dried kinds of pasta. Spoiled egg noodles will smell odd–like must–and even have mold growing on them. So before throwing your previously opened egg noodles right into a pasta sauce, examine them thoroughly.

Average Expiration: one to two months after opening

4. Cashews

Cashews are a pantry snack that you don’t expect to have a short shelf life but do. So it can be surprising to hear you should toss them two to four weeks after purchase. Because they typically come without a shell, there’s less protection, and will go bad faster than other pantry nuts. Cashews that have gone bad will look discolored and become whiter–which is actually mold growing.

Average Expiration: two to four weeks after purchasing

5. Baking powder

Baking powder is a staple pantry item. And because most people only use a few teaspoons at a time, it can get left open and go bad by the next time you need it. Baking powders spoil three to six months after opening. If you’re an avid baker, that might not be a problem. But if you only bake occasionally, you should probably toss the baking powder in your pantry. While expired baking powder won’t typically make you sick, it will lose its potency and make your baked goods fall flat.

Average Expiration: three to six months after opening

6. White flour

White flour commonly comes in huge bags. And if you’re not a baking extraordinaire, you probably won’t use it before it goes bad in six months. It’s essential to keep tabs on your flour because there is a chance it can cause food poisoning if used beyond the expiration date. Rancid flour will smell moldy or sour. Plus, if it’s spoiled, its standard bright white color may appear discolored.

Average Expiration: six to eight months after opening

7. Marshmallows

Sweet treats usually have a long shelf life, but when it comes to a bag of marshmallows, you want to toss them one month after opening. Spoiled marshmallows will be harder to chew and smell or taste stale. And while it’s typically not unsafe to eat an expired marshmallow, it will probably taste unpleasant and might cause a tummy ache.

Average Expiration: up to one month after opening

How Often Should I Check The Expiration Dates of Pantry Items?

A good rule of thumb is to check everything as you use it. Depending on what you have in your pantry, some items go bad in a matter of weeks, and some in a couple of months. Checking, sniffing, and examining items as you go is a sure way to save you from eating anything spoiled.

If you want to be proactive and keep your pantry up to date, set a monthly task to go through and get rid of expired items. One to two months seems to be a good middle ground so you can avoid rotten pantry items slipping through the cracks–or into your meals.

Are There Any Pantry Items That Don’t Expire?

Yes, some pantry items don’t have an expiration date. You shouldn’t have to worry about throwing out these below food items as long as they’re kept in airtight packaging and in a dry, cool place.

  • Honey
  • Vinegar
  • White rice
  • Sugar
  • Popcorn kernels
  • Vanilla extract
  • Soy sauce
  • Cornstarch

How Can I Tell If a Pantry Item is No Longer Safe to Consume?

If not stored correctly, microorganisms such as molds, yeasts, and bacteria can get into pantry items and multiply–causing food to spoil. Here are some common signs of food spoilage, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture

  • Odd odor. Your pantry item has probably gone bad if you smell anything extremely acidic or bitter. Think play dough, must, mold, or vinegar. Getting a whiff of any of these? It’s probably best to throw it out.
  • Different flavor. Spoiled food will taste either sour or bitter, depending on what it is. Rancid, fermented, and tart are all flavors your taste buds will send to your brain, letting you know something isn’t right with your food.
  • Off-texture. Bad pantry items will have a different texture than expected. Some foods will be noticeably too hard to eat. And some will gain a sort of slimy or mushy texture. Taking a bite of rotten pantry food is very unpleasant. Plus, you can often see the texture of rotten food as well; there might be a slime-like film over the top of your food.

Can I Extend the Shelf Life of Certain Pantry Items by Storing Them Differently?

The trick to extending the shelf life of pantry items is reducing as much air exposure as possible to your food. Airtight containers are great for this. They lock out air and keep your items fresher for longer. Add foods like pastas, grains, nuts, chips, spices, and sweet treats into sealed containers to help them last longer.

Another critical factor to not overlook is keeping your pantry items cool. Items stored in direct sunlight and heat will be suspect to sweating, creating an ideal environment for mold to grow. Help extend the shelf life of your pantry items by storing them in a dry and cool place.