Why Gluten-Free Foods have a Short Shelf Life

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Sometimes it feels like gluten-free food goes bad the day before you buy it. Photo by Gary Chan on Unsplash

I’ve had to learn over and over again that gluten-free food doesn’t last as long as as it’s wheat-based counterparts, and it’s frustrating to throw away food that has gone stale.

Gluten-free food can have a shorter shelf than wheat-based products because the high refined starch content causes it to go stale more quickly. The lack of gluten also causes the food to lose moisture faster.

The shelf life of gluten-free products is determined by what ingredients are used in the product and how the product is stored. There are a few simple things you can do it extend the shelf life of your gluten-free food.

Why Does Gluten-Free Food go Stale and Dry Out so Quickly?

Gluten-free foods can become stale so quickly because they’re high in refined starches. Refined starches are starches that are processed and extracted from food, like potatoes starch and corn starch.

Refined starches are partially damaged during the processing and extraction, causing the starch to behave differently. While wheat-based goods are naturally high in starch, gluten-free foods have a higher concentration of refined starches because they rely on refined starches to replace the structure and binding properties that gluten provides in foods.

When starch is heated during baking, it’s structure starts to soften and melt. As the starch heats up it also absorbs moisture. Once the food is removed from heat, the starch’s structure starts to harden as it cools.

This hardening of the starch’s structure after baking is called staling (food going stale). As the food stales and appears to become dry. A little moisture does escape out of the food while it stales, but most of the moisture is being trapped in the cooled and hardened starch structures.

If you were to reheat stale food, the food would re-moisten and stay moist until the food staled again. In other words, moisture is released when the starch structures are heated and melted, and the moisture is trapped when the starch structures cool and harden.

Gluten-free foods go through the staling process like all other foods, but the high percentages of refined starches causes gluten-free foods to stale faster. Because the refined starch is partially damaged, it absorbs more moisture than starch that isn’t refined and processed.

Since refined starch absorbs more moisture, gluten-free food will appear to dry out or go stale more quickly than other foods.

Another reason gluten-free products have a short shelf life is because water doesn’t bind as strongly with starch as it does with gluten. Without any gluten present, the moisture in gluten-free foods migrates out of the food more quickly than it does in food containing gluten, causing the food to dry out more quickly.

Why do Gluten-Free Bread and Other Foods Mold so Quickly?

Gluten-free foods often develop mold quickly because they are high in moisture content and often contain less added preservatives than other foods. Preservatives are often use less in health-focused foods.

It can be tricky to make gluten-free food that is similar in texture and taste to it’s gluten-containing counterparts. Extra considerations like mixing the dough more, baking the food longer, and adding extra water to the dough can help improve gluten-free foods.

Because gluten-free flours require more liquid to fully moisten, gluten-free foods are higher in moisture than gluten-based baked goods. Mold grows best in warm and moist environments, so moist gluten-free bread is a prime real estate for mold growth.

Gluten-free products are not only free from gluten, but are also often free from other allergens and food additives like dairy, eggs, soy, nuts, and preservatives. This appeals to those with food allergies and those who want to avoid foods with added chemicals.

Preservatives play an important role in slowing down the growth of mold and bacteria in food, and can be natural or artificial preservatives. Some artificial preservatives have been shown to be bad for our health, and can cause breathing problems, heart disease, and the formation of carcinogens (cancer-causing agents).

As people have to come to understand the detrimental impacts chemical preservatives can have on health, some have chosen to avoid these food additives all together. Food producers, especially those who’s products are for the more health-conscious consumer, have started catering to the demand for food products without preservatives.

How to Extend the Shelf Life of Gluten-Free Food

As gluten-free food can mold, dry out, or become stale quickly, you’ll want to store your food properly to be able to enjoy it for longer. Here are a few tips to help keep your gluten-free food fresh for longer.

  • Freeze food you’re not going to eat within the next few weeks.

Keeping gluten-free food in the freezer is the best way to store it medium-term or long-term. The freezing temperatures stop mold from growing, stop the food from staling and stop it from drying out.

Quick Tip: In order to keep your gluten-free bread slices from sticking together when freezing, you can lay out the bread slices separately on a baking sheet and then put the baking sheet in the freezer, and once all the slices are frozen you can stack them next to each other in a bag and store them in the freezer like a loaf. Another way to prevent slices from sticking together is to put wax paper between each slice of the loaf and then freeze it.

  • Keep food in the refrigerator for 1 to 2 weeks.

The cooler temperatures in your refrigerator will slow the growth of mold (but not completely stop it) so storing food in your refrigerator can make it last longer than storing it on the counter. However, the food will stale more quickly in the refrigerator because of the cooler temperatures.

It’s best to keep only 1 to 2 weeks worth of gluten-free foods in the fridge and keep the rest in the freezer. I’ve tried storing gluten-free bread in the fridge for more than 2 weeks and it always turns stale. If you leave gluten-free bread in the fridge too long it will also mold, so you’ll end up with stale and moldy bread. (I’ve also experienced this combination of stale and moldy bread, and would not recommend it)

For additional resources, check out the Gluten Intolerance Group article that has tips about making your food last longer, and visit FoodKeeper App on the FoodSafety.gov website that shows how long different foods last in the fridge or freezer.

Jordan Clark

Hi everybody, I'm Jordan! I was diagnosed with celiac disease and lactose intolerance in 2016, and have been living gluten-free and lactose-free out of necessity ever since. I created this blog to help to help others navigating the gluten-free life.

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