I hate waste, especially when it comes to food. But while spring-cleaning my mother’s refrigerator and pantry, I was more than happy to toss those foods whose expiration dates have come and gone. However, because of my near-pathological hatred for throwing away food and the fact that my mother lives on a very fixed income and can’t afford to replace perfectly good food, I decided to do a little research and see which of the foods were salvageable.
The rule of thumb is that the more processed a food is, the longer you can extend its expiration date. While it might not be at its optimum for taste, it doesn’t necessarily prove hazardous. Those foods with lower-to-no water content (like dried pasta, crackers), dry formulation (like cake mixes), and shelf-stable because they have been heat treated (canned foods) can be safe well past the package expiration date.
Seniors should still be careful to make sure not too much time has passed, however. In an extreme case of ingesting food well past its prime, a grandmother in Italy recently sent herself, her husband, their son, and their grandchildren to the emergency room with food poisoning after making hot chocolate with chocolate sachets that were purchased in the 80s — 25 years out of date.
Seniors should try to buy only what they will eat in a relatively timely manner. Sometimes seniors will buy more food than they can possibly consume because they don’t get to the grocery store as often, so they’ll stock up. While not an issue with sealed pantry goods, it’s not a great idea with meat and dairy (unless it’s well-wrapped and put into the freezer.)
Older people are at greater risk for serious foodborne illnesses because of their lower immune systems. Contaminated foods make you sick within a few minutes or up to a few days after eating. Nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, stomach pain, headache, fever, and weakness are some of the signs that you should see a doctor right away.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Food and Drug Administration has issued a booklet entitled Food Safety for Older Adults. In it, they cite the statistic that 48 million persons get sick, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die from foodborne infection and illness in the United States each year. Many of these people are children, older adults, or have weakened immune systems (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.)
Senior caregivers can proactively help their senior care recipients by learning more about food safety. And if there’s any food in the house that’s been there from before the fall of the Berlin Wall, I think it’s safe to say, “Toss It!”