kris ulland

Your Nutrition Partner

The first thing you should know is that expiration dates on the packaging have NOTHING to do with safety.

Food product dating, as the Department of Agriculture calls it, is completely voluntary for all products (with the exception of baby food). It acts solely as the manufacturer’s best guess as to when its product will no longer be at peak quality.

Food manufacturers tend to be conservative with those dates, knowing that all of us keep our pantries dark and open our refrigerators as minimally as necessary. (I am an exception. I might leave my refrigerator open for a minute or two while I contemplate what I need then transfer everything to the counter.) But, things do get lost in the back of all refrigerators, and the manufacturers know this.

I hate to spend money on quality ingredients and then discover that I haven’t been able to use them up by their expiration date. It’s a waste of money and a waste of all of the resources that went into producing that food. But what does “expiration date” really mean? Is the food definitely inedible? And what’s the difference between a “sell by” date and a “best if used by” date? What will happen if I eat something after those dates pass?

Often the “best if used by,” “sell by” and “use by” designations are just manufacturers’ best guesses about how long their food will taste its freshest. Supermarkets may also use the dates as a guide when stocking shelves. But the dates have little to do with how safe the food is.

“Best if used by/before.” This guarantees when a product is of the best quality or flavor. For instance, a jar of salsa may not taste as fresh or crackers may be soft instead of crisp after this date. It’s not about safety.

“Sell by.” This is the date set by manufacturers to tell retailers when to remove the product from shelves. The goal is to ensure that the consumer has the product at its best quality, which can be several days to several weeks, depending on the item.

“Use by.” This is the last date that guarantees the best quality of a product. This is also not a safety date except when used on infant formula.

In many cases, dates are conservative, so if you eat the food past that date, you may not notice any difference in quality, especially if the date has recently passed.

The things you definitely do not have to worry about are vinegars, honey, vanilla or other extracts, sugar, salt, and molasses. These will last forever with little change in quality. Regular steel-cut or rolled oats will last for a year to so before they start to go rancid. Instant oats, on the other hand, will last forever.

White flour is almost certainly fine to use no matter its age. Whole wheat and other whole grain flours can acquire a metallic or soapy odor within a few months. This whiter-equals-longer rule of thumb is true for non-ground grains as well. Refined white rice will last for years, while brown rice will last only a couple of months.

This is because unrefined grains contain fats, and fats are the first thing to go off when it comes to dry pantry staples. Tree nuts, typically high in fat, will go rancid within a few months in the pantry. Store them in the freezer to extend that to a few years.

Dried beans and lentils will remain safe to eat for years after purchase, but they will become tougher and take longer to cook as time goes on. If you aren’t sure how old your dried beans are, avoid using them in recipes that include acidic ingredients like molasses or tomatoes. Acid can drastically increase the length of time it takes for beans to soften.

Spices are fine long after they have dried out. They will lose their potency.

As a rule, food in metal will last longer than in glass, which will last longer than in plastic.

So, as long as there is no outward sign of spoilage (bulging or rust), or visible spoilage when you open it (cloudiness, moldiness or rotten smells), your canned veggies and fruits will remain palatable. Fresh is ALWAYS better, but having some canned on the shelf is good in a pinch.

The little button on the top of jarred goods will pop up if there has been significant bacterial action inside the jar. Depending on how your pantry is laid out, how long something will last in storage will vary – a year to a decade. Cans of soda will keep their fizz for years, glass bottles for up to a year and plastic (PLEASE DO NOT BUY!) for a few months. Plastics are gas permeable.

Oils, even rancid-prone unrefined oils, stored in sealed cans are nearly indestructible. Oils in glass bottles will go off in time, especially if you store them near of above your stovetop, where heat can get to them.  Old oil will start to develop a metallic, soapy, or even fishy smell. If you don’t trust your nose, put a drop on your fingertip. Squeeze it. Rancid oil will feel tacky as opposed to slick.

Salad dressing will last for months or over a year in the fridge. Make your own with oil, vinegar, mustard and a drop of maple syrup, and plenty of herbs. Store it in the fridge for months.

Mustard lasts forever. Ketchup will start to turn color before the year is out but will remain palatable. Vegan mayonnaise has an especially long shelf life in your fridge.

Pickled chiles, chili sauces like Sriracha, and fermented bean sauces will last a long time in your refrigerator.  I keep my tamari sauce in the fridge but it has a long shelf life.

Remember that from the moment you open a carton of veggie broth or almond milk, bacteria start to digest and produce byproducts. Use it up in a week or check the rim for spores.

Baby food has the only federally mandated use-by date. That expiration date represents the latest date that the manufacturer can guarantee the the food contains not less of each nutrient than what is printed on the label, or in the case of formula, that it can still pass through an ordinary rubber nipple.

*Part adapted from J. Kenji López-Alt, The Expiration Dates You Should Follow, New York Times, 4/15/2020

Napa Cabbage

The cabbage that we know today is very different from its Mediterranean ancestors, which look similar to kale and collard that do not form a head.  Napa cabbage belongs to the Brassica family, which includes broccoli, radish, Brussels sprouts and cauliflower.

Napa Cabbage also known as Chinese cabbage is an annual, cool season vegetable. The plant grows to an oblong shaped head consisting of tightly arranged crinkly, thick, light-green leaves with white prominent veins. The interior leaves and the heart are yellow to ivory colored. The ribs and stem ends are much thinner than the regular green cabbage. The water content is also higher, creating a crisper and more refreshing texture. Its flavor is sweet, crunchy, and celery flavored leaf and has slightly milder and a little sweeter taste.

Cabbage is best prepared as close to raw as possible to help preserve its nutrients. Coleslaw may be the most familiar cabbage preparation in American cuisine. This vegetable is also revered worldwide for the flavor and texture it lends to many kinds of hot soup.

Apart from their slightly milder and a little sweeter taste, Napa cabbage is a good source of nutrients, vitamins and minerals. Consuming i cup of of Napa cabbage offers 47 µg of Vitamin B9, 0.105 mg of Copper, 0.81 mg of Iron, 0.221 mg of Manganese, 3.5 mg of Vitamin C, 32 mg of Calcium, 0.508 mg of Vitamin B3 and 0.04 mg of Vitamin B6.

In addition, cabbage is high in fiber and contains powerful antioxidants, including polyphenols and sulfur compounds.

Cabbage is especially high in vitamin C, a potent antioxidant that may protect against heart disease, certain cancers and vision loss. Vitamin C is an important nutrient for your brain health, immune system, blood pressure and mitochondrial function. Vitamin C may also help reduce the risk for obesity by regulating your inflammatory response and inhibiting glucose metabolism.

Just like other cruciferous vegetables, cabbage also contains these powerful antioxidants:

  • Choline — This nutrient may help improve memory, reduce the risk of neural tube defects in babies and lower inflammation.
  • Beta-carotene — One study shows that beta-carotene may help reduce damage in lymphocyte DNA caused by smoking cigarettes.
  • Lutein — The European Journal of Nutrition notes that lutein may help reduce the risk of macular degeneration by reducing light and oxygen damage and ameliorating age-related cell and tissue deterioration in the eyes.
  • Quercetin — This flavonoid may help fight bacteria, particularly strains resistant to antibiotics.

Cabbage is also rich in vitamin K, which is important not only for promoting bone health but also for lowering the risk of Alzheimer’s disease by limiting neuronal damage in the brain.

Cabbage is also an excellent source of dietary fiber, which is crucial for a healthy digestive system. Dietary fiber passes through your digestive system mostly intact. As a result, it bulks and softens your stool, helping facilitate regular bowel movements.

Other nutrients in cabbage include vitamin B6, folate, manganese, thiamin (vitamin B1) and pantothenic acid (vitamin B5), as well as iron, magnesium, phosphorus, calcium and potassium.

An animal study published in the journal Arquivos de Gastroenterologia found that cabbage may be effective in managing stomach ulcers due to its phytonutrient content. The researchers concluded that the aqueous extract of cabbage may be just as efficient as commercialized drugs when it comes to managing ulcers, but it acts “in a non-harmful manner and, to the contrary, providing adequate conditions for the tissue recuperation.”

Cabbage also contains indole-3-carbinol, a plant hormone that may help slow the growth of cancer cells. In fact, regular consumption of cabbage has been shown to help lower the risk of stomach cancer.

How to Buy

Pick a heavy cabbage with bright white ribs and crisp leaves. Avoid ones that look limp and tired.

How to Store

Store Napa cabbage whole wrapped in a tea towel in the refrigerator for up to a week. To prepare the entire head at once, cut it in half lengthwise, remove the core, and chop as desired. Or, separate and wash individual leaves as needed.

How to Cook

  • Sweet, crunchy, tasty napa cabbage can be eaten raw, added to salads, sandwiches, and burgers.
  • Napa cabbage can be used to prepare coleslaw.
  • Napa cabbage is an ingredient in kimchi.
  • Shredded Napa cabbage is steam cooked with rice wrapped inside plantain leaves and served with stews in Thailand and other East Asian countries.
  • It is used like cabbage in stir fries with added onion, garlic, bell pepper and green chilies mixed with steamed rice and soy/chili/tomato sauce to prepare fried rice, rice noodles, chowmein…etc. in China and other East Asian region.
  • Both bok choy and Napa are vegetables used generously in modern-day stir fries, soups, stuffing…etc.

Grilled Slaw With Ginger and Sesame

Steven Raichlen/ Photo credit: Andrew Purcell for The New York Times. Food Stylist: Barrett Washburne

6 Servings

Ingredients

For the slaw:

  • Neutral oil for brushing the grate
  • 1 head napa cabbage (about 2 pounds)
  • 1 Asian pear
  • 2 scallions
  • 2 to 3 tablespoons sesame oil, plus 3 tablespoons for the dressing
  • Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 red bell pepper
  • 2 jalapeños

For the dressing:

  • 2 tablespoons granulated sugar, plus more to taste
  • 1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger
  • 1 garlic clove, minced
  • 2 tablespoons rice vinegar, plus more to taste
  • 2 tablespoons black or toasted white sesame seeds (optional)
  • 1 teaspoon Chinese or Vietnamese chile paste (optional)

Instructions

  1. Light your grill, building a hot fire and set it up for direct grilling. Brush or scrape the grill grate clean and grease it with a tightly folded paper towel dipped in oil.
  2. Meanwhile, cut the cabbage lengthwise into quarters through the core. Cut the pear in half lengthwise and scoop out the seeds. Lightly brush the cabbage, pear and scallions all over with 2 to 3 tablespoons sesame oil and season with salt and pepper.
  3. Grill the cabbage until darkly charred on all sides, 2 to 3 minutes per side. Char just the outside; the inside should remain cool, firm and crisp. Transfer to a sheet pan to cool.
  4. Grill the cut sides of the pear until grill-marked, 2 to 3 minutes per side. Grill the scallions, bell pepper and jalapeños until grill-marked, turning halfway through, about 4 minutes. Transfer to the sheet pan. Let the vegetables cool to room temperature.
  5. Make the dressing: In a large bowl, mash together the sugar, ginger and garlic with 1/2 teaspoon each salt and pepper. Add the rice vinegar and whisk until the salt and sugar are dissolved. Whisk in the remaining 3 tablespoons sesame oil, plus the sesame seeds and chile paste, if using.
  6. Cut away and discard the core of each cabbage quarter, then thinly slice the charred cooled napa cabbage crosswise, and add it to the dressing. Julienne the pear, bell pepper and jalapeño and add them to the slaw, discarding the bell pepper and jalapeño seeds. Thinly slice the scallions crosswise, discarding the root ends, and add them as well.
  7. Taste the slaw for seasoning, adding more vinegar, sugar and salt to taste. Refrigerate until serving and serve within a couple hours of mixing.

Resources

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https://www.liebertpub.com/doi/abs/10.1089/jmf.2012.2563
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https://aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu/archives/parsons/publications/vegetabletravelers/cabbage.html
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