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The Strange Shelf-Lives of 10 Common Grocery Store Goods

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Ever wondered why some foods tend to rot as soon as you get them home while others have miraculous shelf-lives? It could have something to do with how old some foods are before you even buy them. Below, we break down some commonly purchased goods that are as fresh as possible—and a few that might be a little older than you think.

1. ORANGE JUICE

Is your orange juice actually made from fresh oranges, like many OJ companies market? Likely, no, says researcher and author Alissa Hamilton. According to Hamilton’s investigation, “not from concentrate” orange juices are stored in million-gallon tanks for up to a year before being bottled and sent to grocery stores. Orange juice is first pasteurized, has its oxygen removed and then is stored in tanks. When it’s ready for packaging, orange juice manufacturers add in "flavor packs” to boost the orange taste.

2. APPLES

If you’ve ever picked an apple from the tree and wondered why it tasted different than store-bought fruit, it could be age. Apples can be up to a year old by the time you buy them, though they’re still safe to eat. Year-round apple demand means that a short harvest season—usually from late summer to early fall—somehow has to provide a supply for the following year. To make apples last, harvesters store the fruit in low-oxygen, high-carbon dioxide coolers, sometimes applying fungicides to prevent rot, or 1-methylcyclopropene, a gas that stops apples from emitting the ethylene gas that causes them to ripen and age. Other apple producers use wax coatings to help the fruit retain moisture and appear fresh, which isn’t too unnatural since apples produce their own protective, waxy layer that is often lost during harvesting and washing.

3. EGGS

There’s a lot of debate about what kind of eggs you should buy—cage-free, free-range, organic, or whatever’s cheapest. But most eggs have age in common, and they can be up to 45 days old before they’re no longer sellable. While most egg cartons come with an expiration or “best before” date, egg processors technically don’t have to stamp their cartons so long as their eggs are graded by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). If they do label eggs, there are basic rules: expiration dates can’t be any more than 30 days from when the eggs were packaged, and grocery stores can’t sell them after that date. If “best before” stamps are used, the date on the package can’t be any more than 45 days from when the eggs were carton-packed. U.S. egg regulations are different than other countries', mainly in that American eggs are washed and chemically sanitized before being refrigerated and shipped to stores. Throughout Europe, eggs aren’t washed, and producers instead use an egg’s natural protective coating to keep it safe before reaching shoppers.

4. BEEF

Grocery store beef is often a bit older when it gets to you, but that doesn’t mean it’s no good. Many cuts of beef are aged before they’re sent off to packaging and shoppers, and that means it can be nearly six weeks old by the time you add it to your grocery cart. Aging uses microbes and enzymes to break down some of the tissue, with the goal of naturally tenderizing meat. How it’s done depends on the beef producer; some sides of meat are simply hung in large coolers, while other meats are wrapped in plastic bags before being hung. Each way has its own effect on how meat ages. So, how do you identify good beef in the meat department? The trick is to look for red, not brown, meat. Vacuum-sealed meat often looks purple, but beef that’s been exposed to oxygen turns bright red. It’ll turn brown about five days later because of natural chemical changes, and can feel tacky or smell “off” any time after that.

5. POTATOES

The age of root vegetables like potatoes may not come as a surprise because of how long they last in dark pantries at home. After being harvested, potatoes are stored in large, temperature- and humidity-controlled warehouses where airflow systems keep 20-foot-deep potato mounds from rotting. They can stay this way for up to 11 months before heading off to be cleaned and packaged. If you’ve ever wondered where those bumps and nicks in your potatoes come from, it’s the harvesting process. As potatoes are pulled out of fields, harvesting machinery can rough them up a bit. But properly stored potatoes can heal their bruises and cuts within two weeks.

6. LETTUCE

Leafy greens like lettuce can be fresh, or a few weeks old, depending on where you live and what kind of lettuce you buy. Nearly 90 percent of lettuce sold during the winter in the U.S. comes from Yuma, Arizona, where it’s warm enough for the plants to grow. Shipping times vary based by destination, meaning lettuce could be just a few days old, or longer if refrigerated before and during transport. But, bagged lettuces and greens can be up to two weeks old from the time they’re harvested, cleaned and packaged, and shipped to stores.

7. BREAD

There’s no clear answer to how long bread can sit on grocery store shelves before it’s tossed, since every grocery store has its own standards for food loss. But there are ways to tell when your bread was baked. Bread tags are often color-coordinated to note what day of the week a loaf was baked, such as blue for Monday or green for Tuesday. This color tagging makes it easier for bread distributors and store stockers to rotate out fresh loaves without having to stop and look at each package’s date. But, that doesn’t mean you should completely rule out the old-fashioned squeeze test, because not every bakery follows the same color-coordinated tag system. As for how long your loaf will last at home, it depends on how you store it. On the counter, bread should last five to seven days [PDF], but refrigerated bread can last longer. If you come across a good bread sale, there’s no harm in freezing extra loaves, which retain peak flavor for up to three months.

8. MILK

Milk normally leaves a dairy, is pasteurized and bottled, and arrives at grocery stores within 48 hours. While that’s pretty fast for a food that expires quickly, it doesn’t mean that shoppers aren’t still conscious of “best by” dates when picking up a gallon. So if milk is relatively fresh when it arrives, how long can it stay in the grocery cooler? That depends on each state’s rules and can vary between 12 and 21 days after milk has been pasteurized. At home, using the “best by” stamp to determine freshness isn’t a hard and fast rule because refrigerator temperature, level of pasteurization, and other factors (like backwash from drinking out of the carton) affect how long milk lasts. The sure-fire way to know if milk has spoiled is the age-old sniff test.

9. CRANBERRIES

Cranberries have made a name for themselves during fall and winter celebrations. But, it’s not just the holidays that increase cranberry sales. The bog-dwelling berries are actually harvested during their popular season, and make their way to grocers soon after. When ripe, cranberry marshes are flooded and the berries are pulled from their vines by rotating machines called beaters. The berries then float to the top of the marsh and are collected. Cranberries bought in September, October, and November are usually fresh, but they will last in freezers for up to a year.

10. DELI FOODS

If you’re swinging by the grocery deli for a roasted chicken or quick meal, it’s probably nice to know that your food was likely made that day. Most grocery store delis toss leftover, prepared foods that were cooked that day. In many cases, they aren’t packaged for sale the next day or even sold to employees clocking out for the day. The grocery industry can lose millions by throwing out this food ($900 million in 2001, by one survey's estimate), but they'll pass that cost on to the consumer. That's why the sliced-while-you-wait deli meat costs more than the very similar package in the aisle. But, in terms of freshness, the deli counter is great bet.

All images courtesy of iStock 

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Big Questions
Why Does Asparagus Make Your Pee Smell Funny?
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The asparagus has a long and storied history. It was mentioned in the myths and the scholarly writings of ancient Greece, and its cultivation was the subject of a detailed lesson in Cato the Elder's treatise, On Agriculture. But it wasn't until the turn of the 18th century that discussion of the link between asparagus and odorous urine emerged. In 1731, John Arbuthnot, physician to Queen Anne, noted in a book about food that asparagus "affects the urine with a foetid smell ... and therefore have been suspected by some physicians as not friendly to the kidneys." Benjamin Franklin also noticed that eating asparagus "shall give our urine a disagreeable odor."

Since then, there has been debate over what is responsible for the stinky pee phenomenon. Polish chemist and doctor Marceli Nencki identified a compound called methanethiol as the cause in 1891, after a study that involved four men eating about three and a half pounds of asparagus apiece. In 1975, Robert H. White, a chemist at the University of California at San Diego, used gas chromatography to pin down several compounds known as S-methyl thioesters as the culprits. Other researchers have blamed various "sulfur-containing compounds" and, simply, "metabolites."

More recently, a study demonstrated that asparagusic acid taken orally by subjects known to produce stinky asparagus pee produced odorous urine, which contained the same volatile compounds found in their asparagus-induced odorous urine. Other subjects, who normally didn't experience asparagus-induced odorous urine, likewise were spared stinky pee after taking asparagusic acid.

The researchers concluded that asparagusic acid and its derivatives are the precursors of urinary odor (compared, in different scientific papers, to the smell of "rotten cabbage," "boiling cabbage" and "vegetable soup"). The various compounds that contribute to the distinct smell—and were sometimes blamed as the sole cause in the past—are metabolized from asparagusic acid.

Exactly how these compounds are produced as we digest asparagus remains unclear, so let's turn to an equally compelling, but more answerable question:

WHY DOESN'T ASPARAGUS MAKE YOUR PEE SMELL FUNNY?

Remember when I said that some people don't produce stinky asparagus pee? Several studies have shown that only some of us experience stinky pee (ranging from 20 to 40 percent of the subjects taking part in the study, depending on which paper you read), while the majority have never had the pleasure.

For a while, the world was divided into those whose pee stank after eating asparagus and those whose didn't. Then in 1980, a study complicated matters: Subjects whose pee stank sniffed the urine of subjects whose pee didn't. Guess what? The pee stank. It turns out we're not only divided by the ability to produce odorous asparagus pee, but the ability to smell it.

An anosmia—an inability to perceive a smell—keeps certain people from smelling the compounds that make up even the most offensive asparagus pee, and like the stinky pee non-producers, they're in the majority.

Producing and perceiving asparagus pee don't go hand-in-hand, either. The 1980 study found that some people who don't produce stinky pee could detect the rotten cabbage smell in another person's urine. On the flip side, some stink producers aren't able to pick up the scent in their own urine or the urine of others.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Food
15 Rich Facts About Fudge
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You probably know the basics about this decadent dessert: It's rich, it's creamy, and it comes in a variety of mouth-watering flavors. (Red velvet cake batter fudge? Yes please!) But there is plenty more fun trivia to digest. In honor of National Fudge Day, we’re serving up the sweetest morsels.

1. WHEN THE DESSERT WAS INVENTED, IT CHANGED THE PREVIOUS MEANING OF FUDGE.

In the late 17th century, fudge was a verb meaning "to fit together or adjust [clumsily]." Then around 1800, the word was used to mean a hoax or cheat. By mid-century, the use of the term “Oh, fudge!” as a kid-friendly expletive had come into favor, and was often used when something had been messed up. It’s believed that the first batch of fudge was created when someone was trying to make caramels and “fudged” up. The name stuck.

2. IT HAS STRONG TIES TO BALTIMORE.

The earliest origin story for fudge dates back to 1921, when Emelyn Battersby Hartridge, a former Vassar student, wrote a letter describing her introduction to the treat. She claims that while attending classes in 1886, a classmate's cousin living in Baltimore made the dessert, and this was her first knowledge of it. She also mentions a grocery store, probably in Baltimore, that sold fudge for 40 cents a pound.

3. THE TREAT BECAME WILDLY POPULAR AT VASSAR.

Two years after discovering fudge, Battersby Hartridge got ahold of the recipe and made 30 pounds of it for the Vassar Senior Auction. In Vassar, The Alumnae/i Quarterly, they claim the sweet became so favored that “students would make it in the middle of the night, dangerously diverting the gas from their lamps for the task.”

4. STILL, IT TOOK A WHILE FOR COMPANIES TO MASS-PRODUCE IT.

Skuse’s Complete Confectioner was known as a guide for all things dessert—but the first editions of the book, printed in the late 1800s, didn’t include any recipes for fudge. In later editions, they made up for lost time, including recipes for rainbow fudge (food colorings), Mexican fudge (raisins, nuts, and coconut), maple fudge, and three types of chocolate fudge.

5. AMERICANS MAY HAVE STOLEN THE CONCEPT FROM THE SCOTS.

Fudge is thought to be a descendent of tablet—a medium-hard confection from Scotland. The two treats use similar ingredients, but fudge is richer, softer, and slightly less grainy than its European cousin.

6. THERE'S A WORLD RECORD FOR THE LARGEST SLAB.

The 5760-pound behemoth was crafted at the Northwest Fudge Factory in Ontario, Canada in 2010. It reportedly took a full week to make, and while ingredients aren't available for this record, the previous record holder contained 705 pounds of butter, 2800 pounds of chocolate, and 305 gallons of condensed milk.

7. MAKING FUDGE TAKES SOME SCIENCE.

Early fudge recipes were prone to disaster, with one 1902 magazine explaining "fudge is one of the most difficult confections to make properly." With candy thermometers not becoming commonplace for several years, most recipes required boiling and hoping for the best. Eventually more foolproof recipes were created that included corn syrup (which helps prevent the crystallization that can result in a gritty texture) and condensed milk or marshmallow crème.

8. IT'S NOT ALL THAT DIFFERENT THAN FONDANT.

Fudge is actually a drier version of fondant—not the stiff, malleable kind so often seen on cake decorating shows, but the kind found in candies like peppermint patties and cherry cordials. 

9. A TINY ISLAND IN MICHIGAN CONSIDERS ITSELF THE FUDGE CAPITAL OF THE WORLD.

There are upwards of a dozen fudge shops on 4.35-square mile Mackinac Island in northern Michigan. (Permanent population on the tourist destination: just shy of 500, per the 2010 census.) The oldest candy shop on the island, Murdick’s Candy Kitchen, opened in 1887, while May's Candy claims to be the oldest fudge shop.

10. MACKINAC ISLAND CRANKS OUT OVER 10,000 POUNDS OF FUDGE DAILY DURING PEAK SEASON.

For production, fudge makers ship in about 10 tons of sugar each week and roughly 10 tons of butter each year. Every August, the island hosts the Mackinac Island Fudge Festival, complete with events like Fudge on the Rocks, where local bartenders craft fudge-y libations.

11. FIRST LADY MAMIE EISENHOWER WAS A HUGE FUDGE FAN.

She even crafted her own recipe—named Mamie’s Million-Dollar Fudge—which her husband, Ike, quite liked. It included chopped nuts and marshmallow crème.

12. THE HOT FUDGE SUNDAE WAS CREATED IN HOLLYWOOD.

C.C. Brown’s, an iconic ice cream parlor on Hollywood Boulevard, was credited for dreaming up the idea to drizzle melted fudge over ice cream in 1906 (earlier sundaes had other syrups, like cherry). Sadly, the shop closed in 1996, but the treat remains popular.

13. THE BRITS HAD A SWEET NAME FOR FUDGE.

A description of fudge, found in the 1920 tome Harmsworth’s Household Encyclopedia, read, “A sweetmeat that hails from America, but is now popular in other countries.” (To be fair, in the UK the term "sweetmeat” is applied to a variety of sweet treats.)

14. AT ONE POINT, YOU COULD BUY A LIFETIME SUPPLY OF FUDGE.

Harry Ryba, known as the fudge king of Mackinac Island, once offered to mail out a lifetime supply of the candy—three pounds a month—to any customer willing to pay $2250 upfront. “A lifetime, being yours or mine, whichever ends sooner,” he said, per The New York Times. Not a bad deal, considering he passed away at age 88.

15. FUDGE CAN KEEP FOR A LONG TIME.

Airtight packages of the confection can be frozen and stored up to a year without losing any flavor, which means that you can feel free to give in to temptation and buy a larger chunk while on vacation this year. And about that lifetime supply…

All images via iStock.

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