Fats are a key part of your food stores, but shelf-life is tricky

Fats are an essential category that some people overlook when stocking their pantry because daily life has encouraged us to “avoid fat.” Let’s take a look at why you want fats in your pantry — like cooking oils, shortening, and lard for baking, salad oil, and peanut butter — including how long you can expect them to last, some of the better ones to stock up on, and how to maximize their shelf life.

Here’s what you need to know:

  • Fats are an essential part of your diet, especially during emergencies.
  • There are many different varieties of fat, but no easy rules for determining shelf life based on what type.
  • In general, fats typically have a recommended shelf life of 1-2 years, depending on storage.
  • You want to keep your fats and oils in a cool, dark, dry place, and sealed for as long as possible.
  • Fats and oils don’t last forever, so you want to keep a rotating stock using the FIFO method.

More: How to build your survival pantry with long-lasting food from the supermarket

Fat is good

The word “fat” has a lot of negative connotations. But fat isn’t a bad thing. It’s especially important to preparedness for several reasons:

  • Fat is calories. When you’re in a survival situation, calories are key, and fat has plenty of them. The Mayo Clinic says “Fat is high in energy density. One [teaspoon] of butter, for example, contains almost the same number of calories as 2 cups of raw broccoli.”
  • Fat keeps you full: Fat is not only energy-dense, it keeps you full for longer than many other foods, especially carbs. “Fats are the last to leave the digestive tract and thus provide satiety,” Dr. Mindy Haar told Healthline.
  • Fat is flavor: As the late Anthony Bourdain often said, “fat is flavor.” Butter and bacon grease add tremendous flavor to otherwise bland dishes, which is important, because many foods with long shelf lives, like beans and rice, are pretty bland on their own.
  • Fat is useful: Fats have all sorts of “off label” uses. I oil my boots with coconut oil, which is also used in many skincare routines. A bit of lard does wonders for dry hands. You can even make a candle out of a can of Crisco. It’s a good thing to have around.

So you want fat around, but what kind of fat?

Types of fats

There are many different types of fats, and some of those have subtypes. These types, subtypes, and mixtures of everything in between combine to give different health and shelf-stability properties to the kinds of lards, butters, and oils that preppers stock up on.

The first type is unsaturated fats. They’re generally derived from plants and are liquid at room temperature. There are two types that are generally regarded as healthful: monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats. These can both reportedly lower your cholesterol levels.

Foods high in monounsaturated fats include olive oil, canola oil, and peanut oil.  Foods high in polyunsaturated fats include fish, sunflower oil, soybean oil, and canola oil.

Then you have the saturated fats, which are typically solid at room temperature and derived from animals. Things like lard and butter. But then you have a few curveballs like coconut oil, which is obviously derived from plants but is solid at room temperature. Saturated fats are thought to raise your total cholesterol, but it’s not quite that simple.

What’s tricky is that fats are often a mix of saturated and unsaturated types. For example, lard, which many consider the quintessential saturated fat, is about 45% monounsaturated fat.

And you’ve probably heard of the dreaded trans fats, which are almost universally accepted as bad for you and the subject of many regulations. A chief source of trans fats is partially hydrogenated oil, like you find in vegetable shortening and margarine.

So hydrogenated oil is bad, right? Not so fast. While partially hydrogenated oil contains trans fats, fully hydrogenated oils don’t, or if they do it’s in much smaller quantities. And hydrogenation, which turns a liquid fat into a solid, has many other benefits, including supposedly extending shelf life.

Fat shelf life basics

The tricky thing about fat shelf life is that there are no hard and fast rules. Manufacturers and industry groups tend to publish lower shelf life numbers for most fats, while many preppers will give higher shelf life numbers for the same fats. (A lot of this difference is related to storage, which we’ll discuss in the next section.)

The other thing about shelf life is that it’s more of a gradual phenomenon than a hard cutoff at a certain date. Foods may start to decline in quality and nutrition after a given time but be safe to eat for years. This is especially tricky with oil, which goes rancid over time, but that doesn’t necessarily make it inedible.

Chances are you’ve drizzled rancid olive oil on a salad without realizing it. The good news is that you may be happy eating rancid oil for years, perfectly unaware. The bad news is that the consumption of rancid oils can create free radicals in your body, which have been linked to a number of conditions.

Shelf life is also affected by the form of the fat, i.e. solid or liquid. Livestrong says solid fats tend to last longer, as does Northwest Edible Life.

Finally, there are some differences in shelf life between saturated or unsaturated fats, but most fat-based products you buy in the store are a mix of both. So it’s not easy or worthwhile to try to use the saturated/unsaturated distinction as a guide.

Shelf-life of specific fats

The best way to get a sense of real-world fat shelf life is to look at the published shelf lives of specific products and fats.

Crisco, being a hydrogenated oil, is often praised for its long shelf life. Crisco says that a can lasts for two years unopened, and about a year after it’s opened. Anecdotal prepper wisdom suggests a much longer shelf life, as long as 10 years. Is it a case of Crisco wanting to sell more product or preppers inadvertently eating rancid shortening?

Another solid fat is lard. A tub I purchased recently suggests a shelf life of about a year. Coconut oil is unique in that it’s a non-hydrogenated solid vegetable fat. LouAna, a coconut oil producer, says the shelf life is about 24 months for refined coconut oil.

A tub of lard

What about liquid oils? Crisco gives the same two-year shelf life for its liquid vegetable oils that it does for its solid shortening. Bertolli recommends a 16-month shelf life for its olive oil, although many other producers claim 24 months.

Ultimately, based on manufacturer recommendations, you can expect 1-2 years of shelf life for most fats. Preppers anecdotally tout longer shelf lives for most solid fats, but there may be health consequences for using fats that are past their prime. In reality, a well-stocked pantry will have a mix of many types of fats and fat-based products. The key to shelf-life is ultimately in how you store them.

How to maximize your fat storage life

There are five enemies of fat shelf life:

  • Heat
  • Light
  • Moisture
  • Pests
  • Oxygen

You want to keep your fats in a cool, dark, dry place for maximum shelf life. Pests are not a major issue here as long as you keep the lid on. And the longer you keep the container sealed, the better. If you can keep your oils in the fridge or freezer, you can extend their shelf life still, but they will firm up and be harder to work with.

Your best bet with fats is to keep a rotating stock: buy what you use and use what you store. And while it’s good to have a supply of fats, you don’t want to keep a larger supply than you can use within a couple of years.

  • 1 Comment

    • Sun Yeti

      I buy large containers of oils (olive, avocado, toasted sesame) that live in the back of my fridge. I have small (maybe 10 oz?) pourers in the cupboard that I refill as necessary from the ones in the fridge. This allows me to have liquid oils on hand, while keeping my edible oils cool, dry, and dark until a few weeks at most before I use them. Also saves money buying oils in large bottles.

      It’s not a perfect system; it’s a pain in the butt to wash out the pourers, but it’s the best compromise I’ve been able to come up with.

      I can’t figure out a way to add fats to my emergency supplies without essentially setting money on fire, since I wouldn’t use them before they went bad. 

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