By Dr. Mercola
Food waste is a major problem in the U.S., not only on the farm, where produce may be dubbed unfit for sale because it's too lumpy, too small or otherwise not aesthetically perfect, but also in U.S. homes.
It's estimated that, overall, about 40 percent of U.S. food is wasted, and according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the average U.S. family of four wastes more than 2 million calories, which equates to $1,500 worth of food, every year.1
Reducing food waste by just 15 percent could provide food to feed more than 25 million Americans every year, according to the USDA, and would also benefit the environment, since food waste is the largest component of municipal solid waste (composting food scraps in your backyard is one way to reduce this).
Unless you carefully plan your meals, it's easy to overbuy fresh foods and end up having them spoil before use. There are, however, a number of healthy staples you can stock up on in your kitchen without worrying about spoilage, as they keep for a long time — even years.
Non-Perishable Kitchen Staples to Stock Up Your Pantry
Having access to non-perishable food items is undoubtedly convenient. Stock up your pantry once in a while and you'll be prepared to make a meal even on short notice or in a pinch.
What you want to avoid are foods that last a long time because they contain synthetic preservatives or come in canned form (cans are often lined with toxic bisphenol-A [BPA]). Instead, look for whole foods that are naturally long lasting and good for you. Some of the top options follow:
1. Dried Beans
Beans are a good source of folate, dietary fiber, manganese, protein, magnesium, vitamin B1 (thiamin), phosphorus and antioxidants, and may be beneficial for heart health when eaten in moderation.
A note when cooking dried beans: the cooking liquid will hold much of the nutrients after the beans are done cooking. One trick is to let the beans sit in the liquid for about an hour after cooking to help them reabsorb some of the lost nutrients.
Cooking beans in a pressure cooker may also preserve more nutrients than cooking beans using other methods.
Mustard lasts for a long time (including up to three years before it's opened) and high-quality versions are made of only beneficial mustard seeds, turmeric, water and vinegar.
Mustard adds a tasty kick to many types of foods, and as an added bonus may boost your metabolism by up to 25 percent for hours after you eat.2
3. White Vinegar
The Vinegar Institute states that white vinegar has an indefinite shelf life, due to its acidic nature.3 This is why it's commonly used for pickling, and it's also commonly added to condiments and other food dishes for flavor.
Vinegar may also significantly benefit your health. As reported in the Journal of Food Science:4
"Functional therapeutic properties of vinegar … include antibacterial activity, blood pressure reduction, antioxidant activity, reduction in the effects of diabetes, prevention of cardiovascular disease and increased vigor after exercise."
Distilled white vinegar is excellent for cleaning and laundry, but for health purposes you'll want to avoid the perfectly clear, "sparkling clean" varieties you commonly see on grocery store shelves. Instead, you want organic, unfiltered and unprocessed vinegar, which is murky.
When you try to look through it, you will notice a cobweb-like substance floating in it. This is known as "mother," and it indicates your vinegar is of the best quality.
The reason manufacturers distill vinegar is to remove this rather murky looking stuff that most people find unappealing and won't buy. But in this case, it's the murky looking stuff you want.
As with most foods, the more processed a food is, the less nutritious, and this holds true for most vinegar as well.
While iodized salt has a shelf life of about five years, natural salt will remain fresh indefinitely. While many people are under the impression that salt intake should be restricted, the heart benefits of doing so have been questioned for some time.
In 2011, a systematic review of data involving 6,500 people found evidence was lacking to recommend salt restriction.5 Among people with high blood pressure or normal blood pressure, salt restriction was not significantly associated with overall mortality or cardiovascular mortality.
Among those with congestive heart failure, meanwhile, salt restriction was associated with increased mortality risk.
An update to the review, published in 2014, also found "there is insufficient power to confirm clinically important effects of dietary advice and salt substitution on cardiovascular mortality" among people with high blood pressure or normal blood pressure.6
Some studies have shown a modest benefit to salt restriction among some people with high blood pressure, but keep in mind that there's a huge difference between natural salt and the processed salt added to processed foods and salt shakers in most homes and restaurants.
The former is essential for good health, whereas the latter is best avoided altogether. Sally Fallon Morell, president of the Weston A. Price Foundation, stated:7
"A study from 1991 indicates that people need about one and one-half teaspoons of salt per day.
Anything less triggers a cascade of hormones to recuperate sodium from the waste stream, hormones that make people vulnerable to heart disease and kidney problems. This is proven biochemistry."
Olives also have a long shelf life (about three years) when unopened, making them a perfect snack to keep on hand. Many people have shunned olives because of their high fat content, but this is precisely one reason that makes them so very good for you.
Most of the fat (more than 75 percent) in olives is oleic acid, a monounsaturated fat known for lowering your risk of heart disease. Olives also contain antioxidants "in abundance," according to research published in the European Journal of Cancer Prevention.8
This includes phenol (hydroxytyrosol, tyrosol), polyphenols (oleuropein glucoside) and other compounds. The antioxidant properties of olives have been shown to be stronger than those of vitamin E.9
In addition, the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties in olives, as well as other anti-cancer compounds, make them useful for cancer prevention.
Both green and black olives are good for you, but there is research that suggests the antioxidant oleuropein content decreases as olives ripen. So, in some cases, green olives may have more of this beneficial compound (but it's not enough of a reason to shun black olives if you enjoy them).10
While I recommend eating honey only in moderation, honey has antiviral and antibacterial properties that make it keep for a very long time. While its color or texture may change (turning grainy or hard), it's still safe to eat. Hardened honey can be softened by soaking the container in a bowel of warm water.
Keep in mind that honey, if not consumed in moderation, will increase your insulin and leptin levels and can lead to poor health.
I recommend using raw Manuka honey — not the processed, refined varieties found in many grocery stores. Maple syrup is another natural sweetener that will keep a very long time when stored in your refrigerator or freezer (but this, too, should only be eaten in moderation).
7. Vanilla Extract
Real vanilla extract will keep for a very long time (much longer than imitation versions, which have a shelf life of about two years). I like to use organic vanilla extract to flavor one of my favorite snacks, macadamia nut fudge:
Dr. Mercola's Macadamia Nut Fudge (snack, serves 8)
- Cocoa butter — 300 grams (10.58 ounces)
- Coconut oil — 200 grams (7.05 ounces)
- Raw organic pastured butter — 200 grams
- Macadamia nuts — 300 grams
- 8 full droppers of stevia (can use Lo Han as a substitute)
- 1 teaspoon organic vanilla extract
- Mix butters and oils over low heat for 3-5 minutes
- Let the mixture cool, then add stevia and vanilla bean paste
- Mix in 8-ounce wide-mouth ball jars
- Spread nuts into jars evenly
- Refrigerate until desired consistency is reached
8. Chia Seeds
Chia seeds are said to last up to two years with no refrigeration, courtesy of the high levels of antioxidants they contain.11 They make a quick and easy-to-use source of protein, healthy fats, dietary fiber, minerals, vitamins and antioxidants. Their high concentration of the plant-based omega-3 fat alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) is one of their major claims to fame. Chia seeds contain up to 40 percent oil, with 60 percent comprised of omega-3.12
In addition, chia seeds contain a number of additional phytochemicals, each with its own unique benefits. This includes myricetin, quercetin and kaempferol, known for their antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer properties, and caffeic acid.13 Chia seeds can be added to smoothies or eaten as a pudding, a topping, a spread or even in place of breadcrumbs on meat and fish.
Some Foods Are Good Long Past Their Expiration Date
A report from the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and Harvard found that more than 90 percent of Americans are throwing out food prematurely because of misunderstandings of what food date labels actually mean.14
The researchers concluded that food dates generally lead to good food getting thrown away prematurely. There is no universally accepted system for food dating in the U.S. "Sell by" dates aren't meant for consumer use at all. They are there as tools to help retailers ensure proper product turnover when stocking shelves, yet many consumers believe it is a measure of food safety.
"Best if Used By (or Before)" dates are set by the manufacturer to suggest when to consume the food by for best flavor or quality. However, it is not a measure of safety either and foods can typically be safely consumed after the "best by" or "best before" date, often with minimal, if any, changes in taste or texture.
A "use by" date is the last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality. This date is also determined by the manufacturer and may vary widely even between similar products. So when determining whether a food is still good to eat, you're basically on your own (but understand that many foods are still safe to eat beyond their expiration dates).
To minimize food waste and get the most from your food dollars, I recommend buying your food locally, preferably from a small organic farming operation you can visit and inspect for yourself. This guarantees that you get the freshest foods right from the start, giving you a few extra days (or in some cases weeks) of leeway before they spoil.