Creating food products is expensive. You have to source the ingredients, rent a clean health department approved space, pay someone to make your food, package it up and sell it. The last thing you want is for that product to go bad before it gets to the consumer. Most food products have a “best by” or “use by” date stamped on their package to help consumers know when the product should no longer be consumed. Setting this specific date is challenging because many factors need to be considered including microbial growth, sensory degradation, and even the breakdown of vitamins.

It is observed that while most entrepreneurs want to extend the shelf life of their food product, they usually don’t know what their shelf life is to begin with, or what the factors are that cause its deterioration. In order to solve a shelf life problem, you must first identify what those problems are, and then solve for it.

A well designed shelf life study will help you identify the cause of your products breakdown (AKA end of shelf life). Here are some steps you can take to design your own shelf life study.

1) Identify the type of product failure: When your product is no longer acceptable, what is the reason? Has it become moldy, does it no longer taste fresh, did it melt in the package? Has it become too stale, or too soft? Did the color change, flavor change, aroma change? Most likely your product will have multiple failures as it reaches the end of its natural food life.

2) Set up a study to monitor the progression of a product failure to see how long that product takes to go from fresh and acceptable to unacceptable.

3) Monitor the deterioration of your product by doing sensory studies (with trained panelists if possible), consumer testing, as well as third party laboratory testing to measure bacterial growth, vitamin loss, color changes and rancidity. The lab will be able to put your samples in controlled temperature environments to simulate best and worst case storage conditions.

4) Once you have a clear picture of your product’s shelf life from fresh to a mess then you can work on solving the issues that are causing it to be unacceptable or fit for sale. If you have mold issues, you will want to find a preservative or lower the water activity. If the product is losing nutritional value (i.e. vitamins) you may want to fortify it with extra vitamins beforehand. If the product becomes rancid, you may want to add some Vitamin E or antioxidants to stop the rancidity.

5) When it comes to shelf life, first identify the problem, then find a solution. Don’t just throw in citric acid and other preservatives hoping something will just ‘work”. Use the right preservation method that will ensure your product is as good on day 1 as it is on its last day.

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