Are Your Cooking Spices Too Old?

In the grand scheme of things to watch out for—heavy metals, date rape drugs, foreclosure—a jar of less-than-potent nutmeg might not seem like such a big deal. But most ground spices lose their potency after only six months, which means households all across the country are about to enter the most spice-centric time of the year with expired spices. Spice seller McCormick now offers a handy spice-dating service via its website, which is how one highly excitable reader discovered that her local supermarket was selling stuff that was 5 years old.

I bought a bottle of McCormick curry powder a few days ago at the Superfresh (NOT) at the Hillcrest Shopping Center, Lansdale PA. I checked the site and it indicated it had no record of that number. OMG! Counterfeit spice! From China! With lead and anti-freeze in it!

So I called McCormick and gave a nice woman named Jenny the number. She said it was from 2002!!!!!!!!! No lead or anti-freeze.

We think the McCormick spice-dating service is great, but we also think it’s an easy way for McCormick to push greater sales of its spices, so we looked online for some independent info about how long spices really last. Turns out, six months is about the limit for ground spices, and whole spices can last one to two years. Peppercorns are the exception, lasting 5 years or more.

Spices aren’t dangerous when they’re too old, just less potent. One website says that “greatly increased quantities will be needed to get the same strength of flavour” and that “some of the more delicate elements of the flavour may be lost entirely.”

Patty didn’t have a lot of luck convincing the Superfresh manager that he was selling old merchandise, but we greatly admire the way she got so obsessive about something the manager would obviously prefer to just ignore:

SOOOO, I go to the “Superfresh” and explain to the guy at the ‘service’ counter about the dating system and how I called McCormick and how they said the curry I bought two days ago was manufactured in 2002.

He replied “we’ve only been here year so I don’t see how that could happen”

Leaving aside the IQ question I asked if he’d like to go with me to check to see if any more were out of date. He said no.

So I checked and the majority that I looked at were out of date, like one was made after 2004.

I went back and relayed this to him and he repeated they had only been there a year. I told him I would pass this information and what it implied about the freshness of their merchandise on and that I had written to The Consumerist about it. He gave me a refund card.

McCormick Spice Checker (thanks to Patty!)

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Comments

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  1. liquisoft says:

    All I know is Emeril AND Alton Brown both told me that spices don’t say potent for very long and that I should refresh my spice collection every 6 months.

    But then, I don’t cook.

  2. Eilonwynn says:

    Even still, this will not be enough to convince my father that I do not NEED the two pound bag of dry mustard owned by HIS GRANDMOTHER. (sadly, it lives alongside a number of other products owned by that same great lady, originally meant for cooking but now may be used as a substitute for dry concrete mix)

  3. Elijah-M says:

    A great way to always have fresh spices is to buy them in small quantities from the bulk section at Whole Foods. Not only is this cheaper than buying individually packaged spices, but the quality is often a cut above what you find in the supermarket. It also leaves a much smaller environmental footprint, because there is a lot less packaging involved.

  4. ObtuseGoose says:

    I remembered this from a Pop-Up video of the Spice Girls. They warned people that spices go stale after 6 months. They were soooo right ;o)

  5. bunnymen says:

    Yeah, I guess I could go ahead and toss the spices I bought around 2 years ago when I had a brief desire to actually start cooking…

  6. bunnymen says:

    Also, I find the tip “If it’s from Baltimore, it’s at least 15 years old” to be incredibly cute.

  7. ElizabethD says:

    @Eilonwynn:

    Ha ha ha ha! WIN.

    I wish there were some way to buy smaller quantities of seldom-used spices at nonexorbitant prices. I’m sure most of mine are expired, except for cinnamon, chili powder, cumin, and dill, which we go through like gangbusters.

  8. Nytmare says:

    I have a salt shaker in my desk drawer that’s 15 years old. Still salty. Who knows when these things should expire? So much of our foodstuffs are undated.

    And like the heavily advertised 3000-mile oil change, how do we know they aren’t just trying to get us to purchase replacements unnecessarily?

  9. wfpearson says:

    Months ago I read a story about spices that said the same spices you can find in the spices aisle at the Supermarket are a fraction of the price when you buy the same spice in the ethnic foods section of the store. Of course you may have to get past the foreign language packaging. You can also try international food stores or cost clubs like Costco.

  10. UpsetPanda says:

    @Elijah-M: Exactly. I cook all the time, though not as much as I like. I go through spices pretty frequently, and buying fresh ones just makes it taste better. Plus, in the long run it’s cheaper because you are using the spices and herbs, rather than spending $2.60 on a plastic cup of cumin and then shoving it into the back of your cupboard.

  11. DrGirlfriend says:

    @ObtuseGoose: Pop Up Video was strangely educational.

    @nytmare: Salt can preserve foods, so I’d think that it doesn’t really expire. I wonder if could start to taste a little off, though? Can you go taste it and find out? ;)

  12. matt1978 says:

    That “SOOOO” makes me glad the manager blew her off.

  13. smelendez says:

    Why don’t they just put expiration dates on them?

    Or at least “packaged on” dates. They’d sell more spices.

  14. clodia says:

    @nytmare: @DrGirlfriend:

    Salt is a mineral, not a spice, and so has a different expiration than spices. I’m not certain if it has one.

  15. girly says:

    I just checked a large container of cinnamon I bought about 2-3 years ago, and it was made in 1999… :(

  16. DrGirlfriend says:

    @clodia: Important distinction, which I feel silly not having caught before!

  17. clodia says:

    @DrGirlfriend:

    I know, you keep it in with the spices, in a spice jar – I had to sit and think for a second before I remembered the truth!

  18. Dervish says:

    @nytmare: Salt doesn’t expire in the same way that spices do. Salt is a non-volatile crystalline chemical. Spices age out because their volatile oils and flavor compounds break down. You should try to store them in a cool, dark place (say, a cabinet versus an exposed spice rack).

    Fun Tip! If your old salt starts to cake in the shaker, add some grains of white rice. These absorb the mosture that makes the salt clump. At least, that’s my understanding of how it works.

  19. adamondi says:

    @DrGirlfriend: Salt is technically not a spice. It is a mineral. Its taste and flavor-enhancing properties do not go stale or spoil. Spices and dried herbs go stale because the essential oils dissipate and take the power of their flavor with them. Since salt has no essential oils to dissipate, the 6-month rule does not apply to salt.

    However, your salt could easily become contaminated with other substances that would make it taste “off.” This would not be a function of time, however. It would be a function of things to which your salt is exposed. Personally, I cook with salt frequently enough that I have never had to worry about flavor contamination.

  20. B says:

    Pumpkin pie flavored with old spice does not taste good. I know from personal experience.

  21. tph says:

    Please get your spices from Penzey’s. Doing otherwise makes the baby Jesus cry.

  22. PatrickPortland says:

    @smelendez: The two I just pulled out of my pantry have “Best By” dates. I estimate I purchased them about 18 months ago, and they both have 2009 dates.

  23. MeOhMy says:

    @B:

    Pumpkin pie flavored with old spice does not taste good. I know from personal experience

    You must have used the deodorant. The Old Spice cologne tastes great in pie, but something the deodorant adds on “off” flavor.

  24. doctor_cos wants you to remain calm says:

    @B: old spice or Old Spice?

  25. doctor_cos wants you to remain calm says:

    @Troy F.: I am beaten again…

  26. @liquisoft: You must spend hundreds per year on spices just to not cook : -)

  27. Laffy Daffy says:

    A few months after we joined Sam’s Club several years ago, my wife went on a spree and bought these giant quart tubs of several spices, some familiar (oregano, garlic powder) and not so familiar. She was so proud, thinking we’d be saving tens, maybe hundreds, of dollars over time. I didn’t have the heart to tell her we’d never use it all up before it went blah-blah and she basically wasted a bunch of money. She was never an Emeril in the kitchen (her family’s idea of good spaghetti was a chunk of Velveeta melted into Campbell’s tomato soup, one of several recipes she brought into our home) and her complete and utter refusal to plan meals ahead of time (as well as her anger at me when I make a suggestion) is the only thing we really argue about, which isn’t very often. And those spices? I threw them out and told her the cabinet shelf broke. And yes, I do all the shopping now.

  28. kellsbells says:

    @ElizabethD: I don’t know where you live, but it is possible to buy bulk spices at more health/eco-conscious stores. True story: On Monday i was making spiced wine and managed to score 2 cinnamon sticks ($0.06) and a good sized bag of organic cloves ($0.32). They were cheap, fresh, no leftover stuff that I won’t use, and, best of all, I had some fanstastic gluehwein. Try a PCC (seattle-area) or a Whole Foods/Wild Oats type place.

  29. nardo218 says:

    My mom just cleaned out our spice cabinet. There was stuff in there she had from the 70s. You can sell the bottles and tins on ebay. Eh. It’s fine. Just use a little more.

  30. neega says:

    I work at a place that sells herbs and spices in bulk and love to cook. After having to bring my own to my in-laws to get any decent flavor for holidays meals (somehow I’m always the one cooking even though it’s not my house), I decided to upgrade my mother-in-law’s spice collection. I brought small jars hand-filled with 10 different common ones, and to prove a point, had her smell each one, and her old jar of the equivalent. The difference was astonishing even to me. Though she probably won’t use them on her own, at least for the next 6mo-year, I won’t have to cart along my own herb jars. BTW, the project cost me 95 cents per jar, plus around $5 for all of the spices. Not bad for $15 total.

  31. mconfoy says:

    @bunnymen: They are no longer in Baltimore, they are in Hunt Valley. So Hunt Valley smells like pepper now.

  32. mconfoy says:

    @retzer: You didn’t do a test drive on her cooking before marrying her? I would do a trade in if I were you.

  33. scarletvirtue says:

    @tph: I love Penzey’s spices – always quality products, and the catalogs are full of information on the spices, as well as a few recipes.

    @Troy F.: Thank you so much for that much-needed laugh! I’ll be sure to avoid using Old Spice in my baked goods from now on.

  34. stubblyhead says:

    so what, my mom probably has stuff in her spice rack that’s older than I am. I know they have booze older than me.

  35. goodkitty says:

    @retzer: Thank you for making me laugh so hard that I’m in tears. I’m going to save that comment away for a rainy day… velveeta and tomato soup indeed… oh no, there I go again! :D

  36. Wasabe says:

    Anyone in the Boston area looking for loose spice (rather than little plastic containers) can try either Harvest Co-Op or Christina’s Spices, both in Cambridge. Or, if you absolutely must have those little containers, CVS sometimes sells theirs for 99 cents each.

  37. Jon Parker says:

    @mconfoy: I work in Hunt Valley (not at McCormick), and I definitely say that the area does not smell like pepper. It smells like garlic.

  38. legotech says:

    @nytmare: Salt isn’t technically a spice. Its a rock. It won’t go bad unless it gets wet :)

  39. magdelane says:

    @tph: You are so right. Penzey’s is teh bomb. Their prices are way better than grocery stores and you know the stuff is truly fresh. I’m blessed enough to have a retail store here in Saint Louis that I can go in and ogle all of the little lovelies whenever I want to, but they also have an okay e-commerce site and grandma can mail-order if she wants.
    Not only is their quality top, you can buy spices in very small quantities (for those who don’t cook much) all the way to huge “I own a restaurant” quantities. Also for the folks who don’t cook much, and don’t need a jar each of a dozen herbs to make an Italian/whatever style dinner, there are salt-free herb blends such as Boquet Garni and Herbes de Provence; and for the non-bakers who like pies and such over the holidays they have spice blends such as Pumpkin Pie Spice or Cake Spice….
    (now I’m drooling. Time to make dinner.)

  40. myls says:

    My dad nursed along a jar of red pepper flakes for over a dozen years. He absolutely refused to replace them and everyone else refused used a different jar. He claimed that they improved with age. My mom later admitted to me that she “updated” his pepper flakes on a regular basis. Maybe there is something to having fresh spices on hand after all.

  41. stickystyle says:

    And since you mentioned it, pre-ground nutmeg is pretty much worthless for the nutmeg flavor. the volatile oils are gone super quick after nutmeg is ground, so buy them whole and grate them yourself. You will be amazed in the difference.

  42. Michael Kohne says:

    I live near that Superfresh and occasionally shop there. The manager was being deceptive – it’s been a superfresh for the last year, before that it was another local chain called ‘Clemens’, which had been in that location for well over 10 years.

    While they did close for a few days for the changeover, I have a really hard time believing they actually got rid of all of Clemens stock when they bought the store.

    So, it looks like if McCormick really wants to promote freshness, they need to start putting dates on the jars. But then, what will the supermarkets do with all the out of date stuff?

  43. MBZ321 says:

    That SuperFresh was a Clemens market before last year so I guess SuperFresh bought whatever was on their shelves before moving in.
    Honestly, it’s probably all a marketing scam. I have spices that are over 10 years old and I think they are fine. Then again, i’m by no means a professional chef.

  44. etinterrapax says:

    @tph: I was just going to recommend Penzeys myself. They rock, and you can get most spices in a wide variety of package sizes, including envelopes/bags to refill your glass jars. I’ve ordered from the website and also visited their Arlington, MA location–nirvana. Prices very competitive, too. I needed a vanilla bean for a recipe last year. McCormick in the grocery was $15!! At Penzeys, three of their best quality vanilla beans in a screwtop glass tube is about $7.

  45. Namilia says:

    Lmao. Thanks to that site, I was finally able to go through my mother’s spices, some of which dated back to the early 80′s XD Needless to say, there is a LOT more room on her spice rack, I discarded of about 31 different expired spices all dated 2002 or prior, leaving maybe 11 *good* bottles up there, two of which are expired but she just bought them and can’t stand the thought that they are already 2 years’ expired.

    I also went through her seasonings and found some packages so old they had either come open, or are now discontinued (and expired).

    Thanks for this post, Chris!

  46. Namilia says:

    Next question – She wants to recycle the bottles for arts and crafts or something, and had me put all the herbs in a gallon freezerbag (which is now full)…anyone got an eco-friendly idea I can do with these expired spices? If I put them in the garden for example, would they help or harm the soil balance?

  47. HungryGrrl says:

    I think you should spread them outside and see if you get any poppy plants or celery plants….

  48. Namilia says:

    Lol..maybe celery but not poppy, didn’t discard any of that. Did have 2 20 year old containers of celery seed though :P

  49. CyGuy says:

    If your store has one, I recommend checking the Hispanic section of your supermarket if it has one. Shoppers Food Warehouse here in DC carries a brand called La Flor [www.laflor.com] which are about one third the price of McCormick and the bottles have a human-readable expiration date.

  50. Ailu says:

    Wow. Just checked, and I gotta bottle of Paprika that is over 15 years old. Hudda known?

  51. mconfoy says:

    @Ailu: Spanish Paprika is crap anyway.

  52. ironchef says:

    that’s why Old Spice is Hungry like the wolf.

  53. timmus says:

    I might have to call bullshit on a lot of this. I think it’s a combination of information from overzealous gourmet cooks who cook with perfection and the advice of the industry who wants to see more and more product turnover to boost earnings. I have some spices that are 5-10 years old and still taste just as good. Historically, the spices imported by caravan from China into Europe hundreds/thousands of years ago took a very long time to get to their destinations… and if they went flat over that time, there wouldn’t have been the demand for them.

  54. RocktheDebit says:

    @mconfoy:

    I totally agree. But then, my great-grandmother was Hungarian, so I’m admittedly biased.

  55. RocktheDebit says:

    For those looking for little spice jars: Tones. They’re not everywhere–I’ve found that they tend to be in independent markets/corner stores–but you get about an ounce or two of spice for $1.09, which is perfect for things like tarragon, rosemary, thyme, clove — you know, the stuff you don’t use as often as you do your basil and oregano and cinnamon.

  56. OnionRings says:

    I’d venture to say that Victoria Beckham’s Spice rack will never go bad since silicone doesn’t degrade.

  57. Robert Isbell says:

    wow, I did not realize that, I’ll have to recheck all my spices now.

  58. igg10 says:

    McCormick does not recommend 6 months nor 1 year though.

    Checking their shelf life page, they advise:
    Ground spices 2-3 years
    Whole spices 3-4 years
    Seasoning blends 1-2 years
    Herbs 1-3 years
    Extracts 4 years (except pure vanilla which is forever)

    I just checked the bottle of ground cloves I bought this year, it was packaged December 2000.

  59. thepounder says:

    @liquisoft: As far as I’m concerned, if Alton Brown says “it is so” about anything in cooking, then it is true. I remember he had a whole show about keeping your spices fresh and proper storage and all that.
    Very helpful.

    @RocktheDebit: No doubt. Tone’s has good spices on the cheap. And if you need something that you use all the time they have larger containers as well, and very cost-effective too.

  60. SolDeBarber says:

    I was staying in Baltimore when they were demolishing the old McCormick plant on the edge of the Inner Harbor. It was a massive concrete building and as the wrecking ball pulverized it, the aroma of decades of accumulated spices were released into the air. It was overwhelming.

  61. girly says:

    @igg10: Six months is probably when the decline starts for most spices, not that they are totally useless by then. I think that’s what the date discrepancy is.

  62. Consumerist Moderator - ACAMBRAS says:

    @mconfoy:
    @RocktheDebit:

    Yep — Hungarian Paprika FTW. Growing up in a household where the predominant “spices” were salt and old ground black pepper, I thought paprika was simply the stuff you sprinkled on deviled eggs for a little color. It wasn’t until a friend in Cleveland introduced me to Hungarian paprika that I realized that it actually has FLAVOR.

  63. speedwell (propagandist and secular snarkist) says:

    @Consumerist Moderator – ACAMBRAS: Hungarian Paprika in the large red tins is, ounce for ounce, cheaper than the “whatever” paprika in the little glass bottles anyway. For real fresh, tasty paprika (yes, it HAS a taste), you want Otto’s mail order: [members.aol.com] I just put in a 200 dollar order for Christmas tree bonbons, Hungarian salami, and, yes, paprika. :)

  64. rosy501 says:

    @stickystyle: Seconded. Whole spices, a Microplane and a coffee grinder are your friends.

    @timmus: A quick Google search on ancient travel times for spice routes reveals that estimates range anywhere between 6 to 18 months, well within the “Life of Spice” table on the McCormick website. During that travel time, spices were shipped whole (unground). Whole spices keep their flavor far longer than ground spices, and shipping them whole helped preserved the spices during the lengthy travel time.

    Also consider the fact that demand for spices in ancient times was likely not dictated by freshness; it was a major revelation that they had access to these spices in the first place. With the technological advancements, knowledge we have today of chemical properties in spices, and variety of spices available to us, of course the flavors and freshness will be a factor now. As previously mentioned in the OP, “Spices aren’t dangerous when they’re too old, just less potent.” I’m a bit of a pack rat myself, and if I have old spices on hand, I simply increase the amount for the recipe. Still not the same, but better than nothing.

    Lastly, I’ll venture to say that if you were to purchase a new bottle of those same spices you’ve had for 5-10 years, you’ll definitely be able to taste the difference.

    See here for lengthy discussion on trade times. And yes, it’s been a slow day.

  65. James T. Savidge says:

    Some spices are only harvested once a year. For those, changing them out every six months would at best give a marginal benefit.

    “How should I store my spices and how much should I buy?” [www.alaskaspice.com]

    Also, see page 4 of Penzey’s latest catalog (PDF warning): [www.penzeys.com]