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May 20, 2014

Guest Post – How To Figure Out Food Product Shelf Life

This article originally appeared on the ReciPal blog site.  It is being republished here with permission.

A fair number of our customers are also curious about determining shelf-life when they are doing nutrition analysis and creating nutrition labels on ReciPal.

While we don’t offer a formal service for calculating shelf-life, we do have some practical advice for those just getting started.

And we have a little experience with our jerky making. All kidding aside, we’ll give you some practical tips on conducting your own shelf-life study without breaking the bank.

Determining food product shelf life

Shelf Life Basics

The shelf life of a food product begins from the time the food is finished processing and packaged. The time depends on factors like ingredients, manufacturing process, packaging, and storage conditions (temperature, light, etc.).

Before you begin any shelf-life study, however informal, you should have a finalized recipe and production process. Changing ingredients, packaging, and processing can alter the shelf-life, so these have to be stable already.

There is also a difference between when the food starts to spoil and when it starts losing quality. Some of our customers care more about the quality, so even if a product hasn’t spoiled they might not be happy selling it to customers after a certain point.

Lastly, certain products have specific regulations on shelf-life regarding “sell-by” dates and “best-by” dates. Do your research and figure out where your product falls before doing any testing.

Conducting an Informal Shelf Life Study

Even if you’re not ready to shell out thousands for a formal shelf-life study with a lab, there is a lot you can do:

First, check competitors’ labels. Do they all have similar “best-by” dates? That might be a good starting point. Just be careful since they may use different ingredients, processing techniques and packaging.

Second, conduct your own (informal) study. Take your product and store it underrecommended storage conditions. Does it say to refrigerate on the packaging? Leave it in the fridge. Every few weeks, open a bag and take detailed notes. How does it look, smell, taste, feel? How has it changed from a “fresh” bag? Keep checking until you notice changes.

You may also want to run basic tests. Does your product require certain pH levels? Test the pH if you have the tools.

Have Enough Samples

Make sure you have enough samples. Decide what shelf-life would make you really happy. How many weeks is that? How often do you want to check your samples? Divide the total weeks of testing by how frequently you’ll be checking it and have AT LEAST that many samples.

So, for a 15 week study with tests every 2 weeks, you’d need at least 7 or 8 samples. For a 40 day study with tests every 3 days, you’d need at least 13 or 14 samples.

Summary

Determining your food product’s shelf-life can start out very simply and increase in complexity greatly. Here’s a list of steps in increasing order of complexity and price.

  • Check competitors’ labels.
  • Conduct an informal study yourself and take notes.
  • Use a lab of that does formal shelf life studies to test microbial spoilage.

Lev Berlin is the founder of ReciPal, a cost effective nutrition labeling service that enables food entrepreneurs to create their own FDA-compliant food product nutrition labels.  

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