Sugar Talk Sugar Talk Sugar talk logo

Sacks of crystalline sugar and pails of sugar syrup on shelves in a warehouse

What is shelf life?

02/11/2023 By Frank O’Kelly in Food technology

Many products have a shelf life, including pharmaceutical products, cosmetics, beverages and food ingredients including sugar. If products are stored under appropriate conditions throughout the supply chain and the buyer or consumer adheres to the shelf life properly, they should be used or consumed safely without compromising taste, texture, quality and efficacy.

What is shelf life?

Shelf life is the length of time that a product, such as a food item or pharmaceutical product, can be stored or kept before it becomes too old, and its quality and resulting properties deteriorate to the extent that it cannot be used or consumed. Some products become unsafe to consume if shelf life is exceeded.

Soft drink bottles in shop showing best before date

Shelf life is shown on the product, with the label also providing more information about storage. Labels may also specify where the date can be found and whether it is use by / expiration or best before.

Understanding shelf life is an essential tool for inventory management, enabling food and beverage manufacturers to effectively plan ingredients and raw materials buying. It ensures that quality is maintained and production is not disrupted because of out of date products.

The shelf life is usually stated on a product’s label, along with the storage conditions required for a product to maintain its quality and safety up to its shelf life. On the label, the shelf life is expressed as a use by date or expiration date, and a best before date. 

Food product labels showing best before and use by dates

Food and beverage products and medicines will show the expiration/use by date or the best before date on the label.

Many crystalline sugars and syrups, such as soft brown light sugar or black treacle, have a shelf life of over 18 months, if the packaging is unopened and it is stored in dry conditions, out of direct sunlight and at between 10oC and 20oC.

This relatively long shelf life is because sugar is a humectant and absorbs the water microbial organisms need to for growth. However, storage conditions are crucial as once the packaging is opened, exposure to moisture can lead to clumping and hardening of crystalline sugars.

Other sugar products, including invert sugar syrups and liquid sugars, may have much shorter shelf lives – liquid sugar’s is three weeks.   

How is the shelf life of food related to food safety?

The shelf life enables food and beverages businesses to make informed decisions around buying and storing raw materials. The shelf life is only deemed valid if the packaging is not damaged. If the packaging is damaged, or if the seals are broken, it should be considered unsafe to use.

Operative inspecting sacks of sugar on a pallet in a warehouse

Shelf life is shown on the packaging, which should be checked to ensure it is undamaged. If damaged or if seals are broken, the food product is unsafe to use.

The use by, or expiration, date relates to when a product will start to perish as it tells buyers how long a product can be considered acceptable for consumption. It tends to apply to fresh produce like raw fish and meat, ready-prepared salads, dairy products and sweet items that contain short-life fresh dairy, such as bought cakes. If a food product is consumed beyond its use by date, especially if stored in inappropriate conditions, there is a potential risk of food poisoning.

Medicine packet showing lot number and expiry date with keyboard and packaging in the background

Medicines show expiry dates, after which the drug is unsafe to use.

By contrast, the best before date relates to quality. Food such as frozen, dried or canned goods may still be safe to consume after the best before date, but the taste, texture and quality may not be at its peak.

What influences shelf life?

Shelf life is influenced by factors such as temperature, time, humidity, moisture, hygiene, contamination and packaging. The shelf life of sugar products may be influenced by how the product is stored and if it remains airtight, but some sugar products have a longer shelf life than others. For example, pure cane sugar stores the best, while liquid sugars have the shortest shelf life. 

What does the best before date mark look like?

Foods with a longer shelf life, like sugar, are labelled with a best before date. The best before date consists of the day, month and year, and will usually be written on the bottom or back of the product packaging. After this date, there is no guarantee that the product remains of the quality the industrial ingredients buyer or consumer would expect.

Food and drink products on racking shelves in a cash and carry supermarket

All food and beverage products will feature use by or best before dates and it is important that buyers check these dates when taking delivery of, or selecting products in a trade cash and carry environment.

What are the regulations relating to shelf life?

In the UK, regulations relating to shelf life and food information for consumers is based on current EU rules (Regulation (EU) No 1169/2011) and implemented in The Food Information Regulations 2014. Under these regulations, food labels should provide information about shelf life, packaging and storage instructions, as well as an ingredients list and nutritional guidance so buyers and consumers can make informed decisions about what they buy.

What is a shelf life study and how does it affect food labelling?

A shelf life study is the most effective means of establishing the actual life of a product and to gather evidence to demonstrate that the item will maintain its quality over a certain duration. Testing will be carried out, for example using shelf life prediction software, microbiological analysis and taste panels, to identify the shelf life of the product both while it remains unopened and after opening.

Once a product has been tested and validated to assess the specific product’s response to a range of chemical and environmental factors, the product can be sold. Repeat testing can then pick up on any variables that may affect the product while it is in the supply chain.

Who is responsible for calculating a shelf life?

Food business operators (FBO) are responsible for setting the shelf life of products to ensure safety for consumers and to minimise food waste. By providing accurate shelf life dates, food is less likely to be discarded when it could still be safely consumed.

The FBO is the business that markets and/or sells the product. This could be the manufacturer or distributor, and their name and business address must be included on the product label so consumers have this information.

Pails of syrups on a pallet in a warehouse

Ragus packaged products will feature a best before date, alongside Ragus’ name and business address, which is required as Ragus is the Food business operator (FBO).

For example, Ragus Sugars Manufacturing Ltd. is the FBO responsible for our syrup and crystalline pure sugar products. You can find shelf life and storage information on the product pages of our website, and in the FAQs on our contact page.

Ragus manufactures bulk sugars for industrial applications. Our sugars are not only sweeteners enhancing the taste of foods and beverages, but functional ingredients that provide foundational properties to food products, such as colour and texture. To learn more about our pure sugar products, contact our Customer Services Team. For more sugar news and Ragus updates, keep browsing SUGARTALK and follow Ragus on LinkedIn. 

Frank O’Kelly

Frank is the primary contact for many of our largest customers.

View more