Shelf-Life Explained: How to Keep Your Products Fresh for Longer

by Joost Nusselder | Updated on:  June 20, 2022
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Shelf life is the length of time that a commodity may be stored without becoming unfit for use or consumption. It applies to foods, beverages, pharmaceutical drugs, chemicals, and many other perishable items. In some regions, an advisory best before, mandatory use by, or freshness date is required on packaged perishable foods.

In this article, I’ll explain what shelf-life means and how it’s determined. Plus, I’ll share some tips on how to extend it.

What is shelf-life

Shelf-Life: The Lifespan of Your Favorite Products

Shelf-life refers to the length of time that a commodity can be stored without becoming unfit for use, consumption, or sale. It is the time frame between the production and expiration date of a product. The shelf-life of a product can vary depending on several factors such as the type of product, storage conditions, and packaging.

Why is Shelf-Life Important?

Shelf-life is important for several reasons, including:

  • Safety: Products that have exceeded their shelf-life can pose a health risk to consumers due to the growth of harmful bacteria or other microorganisms.
  • Quality: Products that have exceeded their shelf-life can lose their quality, taste, and texture, making them less appealing to consumers.
  • Economic: Products that have exceeded their shelf-life can result in financial losses for manufacturers, retailers, and consumers.

How is Shelf-Life Determined?

The shelf-life of a product is determined through various tests and evaluations, including:

  • Microbiological testing: This involves testing the product for the growth of microorganisms such as bacteria, yeast, and mold.
  • Sensory testing: This involves evaluating the product’s appearance, taste, and texture.
  • Accelerated testing: This involves subjecting the product to extreme conditions such as high temperature and humidity to determine its stability over time.

Factors that Affect Shelf-Life

Several factors can affect the shelf-life of a product, including:

  • Temperature: Products should be stored at the appropriate temperature to prevent spoilage and extend their shelf-life.
  • Packaging: Proper packaging can help protect the product from light, air, and moisture, which can cause spoilage.
  • Type of product: Different products have different shelf-lives depending on their composition and ingredients.

Temperature Control: The Key to Longer Shelf-Life

When it comes to storing products for an extended period, temperature control is crucial. Proper storage temperature can prevent the breakdown of compounds in foods, which can result in the growth of bacteria and other microorganisms. This breakdown can also force chemical reactions that speed up the aging process of the product.

What Temperature is Required?

The required temperature for storing products varies depending on the type of food. For example, beef and poultry need to be stored at cold temperatures to maintain their optimum shelf-life. On the other hand, some foods require special methods of storage, such as using a dehydrator or removing moisture to prevent spoilage.

How to Maintain Accurate Temperature

Maintaining accurate temperature is crucial for preventing the breakdown of compounds in foods. Here are some methods to maintain accurate temperature:

  • Use a thermometer to ensure the temperature is accurate.
  • Store foods in a cold environment to prevent bacteria growth.
  • Cook products at the required temperature to prevent the activation of chemical reactions that speed up the aging process.
  • Use special packaging designed to maintain the required temperature.

The Rule of Thumb

As a rule of thumb, always remember that the lower the temperature, the longer the shelf-life. Cold temperatures slow down the breakdown of compounds in foods, which can result in a longer shelf-life. However, keep in mind that even with proper temperature control, foods will eventually break down and become old. Always notice the “use by” or “best before” dates on products to ensure they are still usable.

How Packaging Affects the Shelf Life of Products

Packaging is a crucial factor that affects the shelf life of products. It is responsible for protecting the product from external factors that can affect its quality and safety. The packaging material, design, and storage conditions are all important factors that determine the shelf life of a product.

The Importance of Proper Packaging

Proper packaging can significantly extend the shelf life of a product, while improper packaging can shorten it. The packaging must be designed to control the transmission of moisture, oxygen, and other gases that can affect the product’s quality and safety. The packaging must also be able to protect the product from physical damage during storage and transportation.

The Types of Packaging

There are two types of packaging: active and passive. Active packaging uses specific materials and technologies to extend the shelf life of a product. It can include oxygen scavengers, moisture absorbers, and antimicrobial agents. Passive packaging, on the other hand, consists of materials that do not actively interact with the product but provide a barrier to protect it from external factors.

The Packaging Material

The packaging material is also an important factor that affects the shelf life of a product. The material must be selected based on the product’s characteristics, such as its moisture content, pH, and biological activity. For example, canned foods have a long shelf life because the can provides an airtight seal that prevents the growth of microorganisms.

The FDA and Shelf Life

The FDA requires manufacturers to test the shelf life of their products and include an expiration date on the packaging. The shelf life is determined by conducting routine tests on the product to determine its quality and safety over time. The FDA’s Shelf Life Extension Program (SLEP) also allows the military to use drugs that have expired but are still safe and effective.

The Marketing Aspect

Packaging also plays a role in marketing. The packaging design and labeling can affect the consumer’s perception of the product’s quality and freshness. A product with an attractive and informative label is more likely to be purchased than one with a plain and uninformative label.


So, shelf-life means the length of time a product can be stored before it’s no longer suitable for use. 

You should pay attention to the expiration date and storage conditions, and remember that temperature control is crucial for prolonging shelf-life. So, don’t be afraid to ask your grocer questions about shelf-life.

I'm Joost Nusselder, the founder of Tools Doctor, content marketer, and dad. I love trying out new equipment, and together with my team I've been creating in-depth blog articles since 2016 to help loyal readers with tools & crafting tips.