Consumers have an expectation that the food products they purchase will be safe, fresh and be of acceptable quality. It’s a fair expectation, but how can food producers deliver on this expectation of quality? Among the best assets at their disposal is shelf life testing.
While many things can impact food quality at the facility, during transit and while at the market, shelf life testing works to ensure that the product meets stated, legal and voluntary standards.
Medallion Labs uses proven testing methods to determine shelf life, or how a product functions as a mechanism of age and temperature. This encompasses the ingredient quality, processing parameters and storage conditions.
To be more precise, a food product’s shelf life, as defined by the Institute of Food Science and Technology (IFFST), is the period of time during which the food product will remain safe; be certain to retain its desired sensory, chemical, physical, microbiological and functional characteristics; and where appropriate, comply with any label declaration of nutrition data, when stored under the recommended conditions.
With the movement toward organic and natural food options, the importance of shelf life testing has increased. That’s because fewer preservatives and chemicals may be used in some food products. The movement toward organic and natural products means that in some cases, a product’s shelf life has been reduced, especially if that product has been reformulated to remove preservative agents. However, while the formulation may have changed, the quality standards likely have not. So it’s the job of shelf life testing to determine how long, under prescribed conditions, the new formulation can continue to meet quality expectations.
Understanding shelf life and changes to shelf life are vital to store buyers who need to maintain an ample inventory of fresh, quality products. It also matters to consumers who must also factor in how long an item will last in their own home before spoilage or other factors hinder the quality.
What Impacts the Shelf Life of Food Products?
Medallion Labs has identified many factors that affect the shelf life and ultimately, food product quality.
A product’s initial microbial load will greatly impact the shelf life. The microbial load is especially pertinent for perishable items. This can encompass the age of ingredients such as oils or processing that impacts nutrient levels.
A fresh or perishable product such as milk will have a shorter shelf life than shelf-stable foods such as pasta which has a low water activity.
As mentioned earlier, preservatives can be added to extend shelf life, as can antioxidants. This can also be a factor when products go through reformulations that impact acids, nitrates and other food product characteristics.
How a food product is processed can add or reduce shelf life. Case and point, thermal processing such as pasteurization can mitigate and even eliminate microbes.
Often, the primary role of food product packaging is to protect the item and support the reported shelf life. The packaging is a protective barrier that can account for moisture absorption, fat oxidation, and exposure to the atmosphere and light, all of which may play a role in shelf life depending on the product.
The climate that a food product is exposed to plays a significant role in shelf life. Therefore, the method in which a food product is transported from the processing facility to the distribution center, the retailer and ultimately, the consumer’s home plays an important role. Transporting foods outside of prescribed temperatures can result in microbial growth, oxidation and other conditions.
How and where a consumer stores a food product is almost impossible to account for. Variances in refrigerator temperatures, a home’s climate, exposure to sunlight and other factors are too numerous to predict with accuracy. Therefore the shelf life of a product—that is, the date assigned on the package—is no longer applicable once the food package is opened.
Real-Time or Accelerated Aging Testing Shelf Life Study
How should a food executive, business unit director or food scientist approach shelf life testing? First, they must consider the type of study.
Medallion Labs can test products at a range of temperatures and humidities and these conditions can be used to represent storage in a variety of environments and can also be used to accelerate certain reactions to give an idea of results on a faster time scale. A thorough shelf life test includes components of both accelerated and real-time conditions to maximize the accuracy of results while giving rough approximations earlier in the study to facilitate decision making.
With an accelerated shelf life study, the process is commonly sped up using elevated temperatures to accelerate oxidative reactions. But know this: while an attractive option, accelerated shelf life testing is not suitable for short shelf life chilled foods where microorganisms flourish at different temperatures. So while you may desire a fast testing process, a particular food product may deem it impossible.
Food Shelf Life Testing Methodology
Whether the food testing process is accelerated or done in real-time, there is a process that should be followed to deliver the best results and most efficient workflow.
First, a clear objective must be defined. This should be influenced by what motivated the shelf life study. Is it a new product, new formulation, change in packaging or some other issue?
Next, the mode of deterioration should be hypothesized for the food product. This could be oxidation of fats, nutritional degradation, starch retrogradation and other outcomes.
What are the key factors to observe and measure? Is it chemical analysis, microbial examination, a sensory evaluation or a combination of these?
- Simulated Variable Environments
- Quality Chemical Analysis
- Quantified Sensory Environments
- Distribution Simulation
- Formula Moisture Models
What are/should be the storage conditions? Variables including temperature, humidity and lighting must be detailed. These factors may be assigned into groupings such as ideal, acceptable and worst case. Additionally, these groupings can be evaluated separately or in a fluctuating model to simulate real-life food product exposure.
Testing frequency and testing end point must also be outlined. Will shelf life testing be performed every couple of days or at larger intervals, be it weeks, months or years? The answer will depend on the type of product.
With the groundwork laid, test samples will be identified and selected. Test samples should be taken from the same batch to minimize variation. However, multiple samples should be stored to conduct additional testing as needed. If the food product deteriorates over time, efforts such as chilling or using freshly processed samples should be taken to minimize deterioration.
With samples gathered, the shelf life study can be conducted following the conditions and parameters that have been defined. When legal or voluntary standards are available, those will be used to analyze results. If not, Medallion Labs will look to the food manufacturer to set the end point based on microbiological, chemical or sensory data,
Physical Testing Keeps It Consistent
The quality of a food product can include many things, the nutritional value, how safe it is to the consumer, how it appears/tastes/smells, it’s freshness and so forth. Questionable quality can not only hurt a product line, it can cast a negative shadow on the manufacturer behind the food product and parent brand.
Medallion Labs shelf life testing works to protect the consumer, the retailer, the product’s reputation and the brands behind the product. It’s an essential safeguard for all involved, which makes shelf life testing accuracy and timeliness important issues to consider. To that list, Medallion Labs offers one more important aspect, price. Medallion Labs works hard to provide shelf life testing that saves time and money while protecting your good name.
The people at Medallion Labs are ready to use our shelf life testing capabilities and expertise to help maintain or improve your product’s quality. Connect with us and let’s develop a shelf life testing program for your food products.