/ Food & Drink

What’s the oldest item in your food cupboard?

expired-tuna-can Best Before

Now here’s a challenge for you this weekend. Find the oldest store cupboard item in your kitchen. Once you’ve done that, think about it very carefully. Would you still eat it? What if it was out of date by over 18 years?

A recent investigation by the Daily Mail saw ageing food stuffs being sent to a lab for microbiological testing. These included a 12-year-old can of tuna, an eight-year-old jar of gravy granules, a bottle of ale, which was 16 years out of date, and an opened pot of chilli powder, due to expire in 2000.

Each was examined for a host of undesirables, including E.coli, salmonella, listeria and Clostridium perfringens, as well as for yeasts and moulds. A food technologist then examined the results and found that all of the groceries, bar the ale, were still perfectly edible. But would you risk it?

Past its prime

Sometime on the cusp of the 1980s/1990s, I distinctly remember asking my nan if she had any ‘tomato sauce’ to go with the chips she’d served up for lunch. She told me to go and look for it in the larder.

Rifling through rusting cans of soup, custard powder, mustard powder, Spam and corned beef, I finally located it at the back of the cupboard. It was in a slightly different shaped bottle and the price had a 1/2p attached to it. Suspicious that it might be past its shelf life, I looked for the Best Before date and gasped when I read: Dec 1979.

‘It’ll be alright – get it down ya, gal,’ my grandad tried to assure me. It definitely wasn’t. Turns out opened bottles of ketchup that have been in the cupboard for over 10 years go a very unappetising shade of reddy-brown with a separated yellow top.

Waste not…

For the Best Before sticklers, I’d like to say I joined your ranks that day and have been a loyal soldier ever since. But as Which? Convo regulars will know, it isn’t true. I take after my grandparents and rarely pay attention to Best Before dates.

Looking through my own food cupboard, I can actually beat my nan’s ketchup. A good number of items, such as bags of rice, pasta and lentils, should have been used up by the end of 2016. I’ve also got two bottles of Lea & Perrin’s and some mint sauce that expired in September 2013.

Lurking at the back is a packet of cornflour that I bought when I first moved in, dated June 2006. I didn’t think I could beat this until I remembered the spice tin. Inside, I found a packet of ground cinnamon, which was apparently past its best in 2002!

Would I still use them? Yes – and I have done, with no ill effects to date. And with more than 10 million tonnes of food being thrown away in Britain each year, almost half of which is deemed avoidable (as in, still edible), I’m not about to contribute to that figure any time soon.

What about you? What’s the oldest item in your food cupboard?


The oldest item I could find in the food cupboards was a carton of bicarbonate of soda with a Best Before date of August 94. It should have been in the cleaning cupboard – and they are now. So should a can of Coca Cola dated June 2013, which is quite good for tarnished copper. The baking soda came from my late parents’ house but I cannot account for the Coca Cola. Maybe a visitor left it.

What did surprise me was to find a can of cocoa powder, with END JAN 99 embossed in large letters on the base. I cannot claim that this is a cleaning material, but I doubt I would have used it.

There is a carton of hand-harvested sea salt that is not dated but was a gift from a small company based in the Algarve in about 2004. I will use it when I have finished the batch that came from the same source a couple of years earlier. I think I’m fairly safe with old salt.

Thanks for this Convo, Mel. Going through the food cupboards this Sunday morning has been a useful exercise because I have a couple of corner cupboards where I laid down a store of cans and jars in late 2016 in case we were snowed in. It’s all still in date but I will have to use it when the risk of snow has passed.

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I last moved house in 2012, so I got rid of anything really ancient then.

As, according to Google, I now live a mere 296ft from my local 247365 convenience store, my food cupboard is largely empty. Also, living in a city, I don’t need to keep stuff against the risk of getting snowed in.

When I helped to clear out my late parents’ kitchen cupboards, we found stuff so old that cans have corroded to nothing, releasing some mysterious stains that might once have been tomato puree. But most of the ancient stuff there was in good order, even if decades old.

I used to believe that tinned food could be relied on to last forever. Plenty of ancient cans can be found in museums.

I contacted a company when I discovered a swollen can of fruit at the back of the cupboard, back in the 80s. I was told that after two years the lacquer could degrade and the swelling is caused by hydrogen produced by reaction of the acid with the metal. Usually, swelling indicates growth of bugs as a result of poor sealing or inadequate sterilisation.

Not a bad trawl really. Plenty of stuff around 2006/7, but the oldest I found are three 38ml bottles of food flavouring. Rum 1998, Brandy 1998 and Glycerine 1995. Strangely in 2007 (BB date 2009) I kept some Crystallised Ginger sugar to flavour something, but never did. It’s okay though, I tasted it! Maybe I’ll use it now.

If this Conversation had been a couple of years ago, I would have to admit to having vintage vanilla and almond essences and some old spices. Glycerine (= glycerol) should be fine if the bottle is sealed.

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The straight spirits (i.e. around 40% abv) should be OK or at least worth checking. I’m sorry that you cannot enjoy a drink, though remembering Lutomer Laski Riesling from the 70s I might want to become teetotal.

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Some dried lentils and pulses in jar, probably thirty years old or more. I wonder if the birds might like them? Last week I found a jelly that should have gone out in 2011. It went out in 2018. Of non- edibles, Shampoo and fabric conditioner also have shelf lives. The latter goes solid if left alone for too long.

With permission, I have been able to examine the larder. Almost everything is within its use by date. There was a jar of red cabbage in vinegar [May 2016] and a kilo of plain flour [Oct 2016]. They were the oldest items, were both unopened, and I have discarded them because obviously we can live without them. There was also a more recent jar of red cabbage which is in use but is reaching its use by date. There are also two jars of mint sauce in current use so we clearly need a bit of discipline in date control. The older one will go quite quickly and then we can soon finish the more recent one.

I cleared out the spice rack about six months ago. Some of the jars were very old and we were not using them so I put them in the bin. There were some protests because they looked attractive and I notice the rack is almost full again now.

We had a bit of a blitz on the freezer after Christmas to use up stuff that had been in there for some time. it is only 25% occupied now.

Like Duncan we have accumulated quite a lot of liquor. The spirits were mostly gifts and since we don’t drink much in the way of spirits we have been offering them as prizes to local organisations for their raffles.

I have been requested to clear out my tool boxes now and get rid of the surplus screwdrivers and duplicated pliers, chisels, and hammers . . . “but they are not perishable”, I objected! However, I think I ought to do that because there is no doubt I have far too many of everything.

Just a couple of thoughts. Once a jar has been opened, the ‘use by’ date no longer applies and it is best stored in the fridge. Anything stored in the freezer will not become unsafe as long as the temperature is correct. Some items spoil quite quickly but others keep well.

The recommendation on all foodstuffs in jars is to keep them in the fridge after opening and then consume within a specified period.

When I was a child all the jams, marmalades, sauces and pickles were kept in a ventilated larder, possibly slightly cooler than room temperature, but then in those days room temperature meant 60 degrees F on a good day. We seemed to thrive. I took a jar of marmalade out of the fridge yesterday and the top surface appeared to have crystallised. I didn’t like the look of it but scooped some out from the lower level for my toast and threw the rest away.

I would find it hard to get rid of any of my tools but, if you do, I’d put them into useful parcels for people just starting up home; they’ll need diy tools and a useful collection new costs a lot.

John – What you have seen is crystallisation and not something we expect to see in a jar of marmalade, though we are accustomed to it with honey, which changes from runny to set gradually and depending on what the bees have been eating.

Commercial marmalade and jam contains less sugar than it used to, meaning that it is more likely to grow mould on the surface if the jar is not refrigerated after opening.

I have examined my kitchen tools and the only the ‘Crackerjack’ nutcrackers (made in England) carry a date – 1981, about the time I bought them. The others have no age statement. I’m not going to repeat the explanation of why I have a pair of Spencer Wells artery forceps in the drawer with the garlic press et al.

It has been a very useful exercise to check what was in the kitchen cupboards. I used to do it before my parents arrived for Easter, knowing that my mum would discover any irregularities in stock rotation.

I still use some tools that belonged to my dad some could be pre-39/45 war Many still in good condition better than today’s tools

We have a manual Spong runner bean slicer that probably dates from 1945 when my parents got married. It is dark green and clamps on the edge of a table or counter. The rotating cutter head is a bit loose now and wobbles a bit but it still produces very good slices of runner beans. It should probably be covered by a risk assessment these days as it can trim your fingernails as well if you’re not careful.

I cannot find the similar-aged Spong meat mincer that would probably shred your fingers if you pushed a reluctant chunk of beef too firmly into the throat. I think personal safety relied on the notion that the operator would stop turning as soon as pain was felt.

Not having a kitchen for a few months last year (and the year before!!!) everything got eaten or disposed of so now everything is fairly fresh. It was mostly old herbs and spices (some dated last century although they might have been refilled a few times) and sauces that we tried and didn’t really like that were disposed of.

We are reasonably good at not leaving stuff to get to the stage of being unusable. If something does go out of date, first it gets the sniff test, then the taste test. If it passes, it probably gets eaten but it does rather depend on what it is.

. . . and if in doubt, boil it. Whatever you do, don’t throw edible food away!

Kate L says:
17 February 2018

We came across a tin of Bird’s custard powder in my parents’ cupboard last Christmas which was best before Aug 1994. I had no qualms about using it but unfortunately it was definitely past its prime as it stubbornly refused to thicken. A new tin was purchased this year!

Somewhere in our cupboard is a tin of Marshall Aid Egg Powder….don’t think I’ll be using it to make scrambled eggs any time soon….

Was it from the first or second world war period? 🙂 Maybe it’s OK if it was made before ‘use by’ dates came in.

Best before dates have never interested me, if they look or smell wrong then they probably are and that is good enough for me. With fresh foods I am a little more careful but again rely on my senses, two days ago I took some baby plum tomatoes out of the salad tray of the fridge and thought I’d had them a few weeks so better check. They were still firm and no blackening around the stem so I had them and they tasted fine. The best before date on them was 22nd December so nearly two months!

At present I’m using a jar of blackcurrant jam which is nine years out of date luvly jubbly, tinned foods are never discarded unless damaged and frozen foods are usually way past recommended use by dates with no problem.
PS road kill is also very nice ,( unless its squashed).

David says:
17 February 2018

Best before dates have very little to do with food safety.
There are some products such as ground spices which will lose their characteristic flavours over time but if never opened will be acceptable considerably longer than the use by date. You may just have to use more to get the same flavour. Buy whole spices and grind them yourself and you will always be able to use them (within a year or two extra) if kept dry and in a cool place.

I never eat bought fresh tomatoes until they are out of date as their flavour is much better when they are fully ripe, just keep an eye on them if the weather is hot. Never put them in a fridge.

Canned food should not be used if the can is dented in the lid or side seam area or once opened if there are signs of corrosion. Nor should it be used if the ends are bulging.

Dried pulses can last indefinitely if kept dry.

Watch out for mites in flour (little brown specks) in white flour even in date packs.

I have heard that aficionados of certain brands of canned sardines and anchovies used to keep them for years to improve their flavour much as wine buffs do.

That’s sensible advice, David, and I strongly agree with your advice about taking care with cans. If there is any sign of swelling, eating the contents could make you very sick or worse, even if heated thoroughly.

Years ago, I got a weevil infestation from flour and they had found their way into other foods like cereal boxes.

Even found them in a bag just brought back from the supermarket once.

I now keep flour in zip-lock bags and check for movement before use.

I once found a few of the little blighters in the top of an old bag of flour. I always check when using flour but have not seen them since. They are tiny.

Ref bulging tins of food ,I visited an old school pal we are in our late 70s not seen him for years ,lives on his own house cluttered all kitchen surfaces covered in tins of food many bulging ,I offered to help him dump the bulged ones , he protested saying he was still eating them and his stomach could cope as he drank quite heavily ,I looked around hall ,sitting room and kitchen floor were wall to wall empty spirit bottles ,stacked behind the front door 6ft high were boxes and boxes of full of vodka ,gin etc . Amazing how the other half live . My old pal and his 3 legged dog .

eddieb says:
17 February 2018

I don’t have any ‘out of date’ items in my cupboard – I check everything every 2-3 months and anything approaching its BBE date I use up. However, it is very rare that I get anywhere near the BBE date.

My daughter is “sorting me out” and she and my graddaughter filled 7 black sacks with tins and spices which they insisted i must not keep. I,m glad to see others also think some use by dates shouldn,t be observed!! They did buy me some new spices and herbs for xmas though. And I did agree that the spices etc. Had lost their flavour.

I have just searched at the back of the top shelf of the larder and found these long-forgotten food and drink items:
1. A wooden spice rack containing several ceramic jars, all printed on the base with “Bronte, Hornsea, England 1973”. A few are empty, but most still have some contents which have clumped together in many cases. There are no labels on the jars, just the names of the spices on the actual rack. I can’t even tell if all the jars are in their correct places. I certainly would not consider them safe to use now.
2. Some loose small glass bottles of various essences with no dates on them at all.
3. A four-pack of Babysham bottles. Again no date, but the labels on the bottles give the volume in fluid ounces with no metric equivalent anywhere. I guess these, and the essences, also date back to the 1970s.

Regarding food generally, I always adhere to “use-by” dates, but am not bothered about “best before” dates. Indeed, a loaf of bread lasts a week, which usually means I am still using it after the best before date.
As far as frozen food is concerned, I freeze a lot of home-grown fruit & veg, and I sometimes find myself using stuff that went in years before – no worries as long as it still looks OK (though I don’t think I would eat anything very old without cooking it first). I am currently still using from a pack of chilli pepper frozen in 2014.

I’m wondering if Babysham might be counterfeit. 🙂

Jim Hawkins says:
18 February 2018

In the cellar under my bathroom I have four flagon bottles of bitter beer that I home brewed in 1975. I may leave it to posterity but I should imagine that it will still be a very good vinegar, which is a preservative.
I recently gave the local landlord a small bottle of elderflower wine that my sister had made some twenty years ago. It was fairly mild vinegar, but perfectly edible, if anyone wants a couple of gallons, let me know.
As regards meat I suggest you read a book titled “Selous Scouts”, this was written when the war in Southern Rhodesia was going on. Volenteers were taken out in the bush to teach them how to live off the country under a limited food supply. At the start a baboon, or similar animal was shot and hung up in a tree. After about a week when it was green and reeking and the trainees had reassembled the stinking mess was chucked in a pot and boiled, there were no reports of people dying after feasting on this delicacy, though they did advise not to try reheating any leftovers, unlike a homemade curry which tastes better on the second or third day!
In 1961 in Sharjah, once a small British Forces base in what is now the UAE, there was an imminent shortage of beer. A local merchant had a load of old crates of tinned beer in one of it’s warehouses which were purchased by the local NAAFI, there were no reports of these ancient tins killing anyone, though this was in the days when the only way of crushing a beer tin was by hitting it with a sledgehammer!

As per David; dented tins are a no-no. Everything else is a smell test. Chicken and fish however i use asap, fish always on the same day as once it goes, it really stinks! The only really old foodstuff I have used was mustard powder. The tin must have been 20 years or so old and the powder had turned grey. I was curious so mixed it with water in the usual way – it had little taste. I left it for 15 mins or so and noticed it had turned yellow so gave it a sniff; it cleaned my sinuses and so was all used. I always buy honey at its sell by date, as it is the one documented food which does not “go off”; well after 2000 years is good enough for me!!

I have a bottle of Vanilla essence that I ‘inherited’ from my mum. It is pre decimal which puts it before 1967 I think! Many of my herbs and spices are at least 10 years outside of their use by date too.

It might not be quite that old, Julie. Decimal day was 15 February 1971. Vanilla essence might still be OK and some spices seem to survive a long time, but I can’t imagine that old herbs have much flavour after 10 years.