Non-perishable foods, such as canned goods and dried fruit, have a long shelf life and don't require refrigeration to keep them from spoiling. Instead, they can be stored at room temperature, such as in a pantry or cabinet.
They're not only standard kitchen items but also favored by backpackers and campers who can't bring perishable foods like fresh meats, dairy, and vegetables on the trail.
What's more, non-perishable goods are essential in emergency situations and favored by charitable organizations that feed or give groceries to people facing homelessness or food insecurity.
Although some items like boxed macaroni and cheese are packed with preservatives and other unhealthy ingredients, quite a few nutritious non-perishable foods are available.
Here are 12 of the healthiest non-perishable foods.
1. Dried and Canned Beans
With a long shelf life and high nutrient content, dried and canned beans are smart non-perishable food choices. Canned beans can be kept at room temperature for 2–5 years while dried beans can last 10 or more years, depending on the packaging.
In fact, one study found that pinto beans stored up to 30 years were considered edible by 80% of people on an emergency food use panel.
Beans are an excellent source of fiber, plant-based protein, magnesium, B vitamins, manganese, iron, phosphorus, zinc, and copper. What's more, they pair well with most foods and make hearty additions to soups, grain dishes, and salads.
2. Nut Butters
Nut butters are creamy, nutrient-dense, and delicious.
Although storage temperatures can affect shelf life, commercial peanut butter keeps for up to 9 months at room temperature. Natural peanut butter, which does not contain preservatives, lasts up to 3 months at 50℉ (10℃) and only 1 month at 77℉ (25℃).
Nut butters are a rich source of healthy fats, protein, vitamins, minerals, and powerful plant compounds, including phenolic antioxidants, which are compounds that protect your body against oxidative stress and damage by unstable molecules called free radicals.
Jars of nut butter can be stored in your pantry while smaller packets can be taken backpacking or camping for an on-the-go snack.
3. Dried Fruits and Vegetables
Although most fresh fruits and vegetables have a short shelf life, dried produce is considered non-perishable. When properly stored, most dried fruit can be safely kept at room temperature for up to 1 year, and dried vegetables can be kept about half that time.
You can choose from a variety of dried fruits and vegetables, including dried berries, apples, tomatoes, and carrots. You can also use a dehydrator or oven to make your own dried fruits and vegetables. Vacuum-sealed packaging can help prevent spoilage.
Dried fruits and veggies can be enjoyed as a snack or added to trail mix. Plus, dried veggies can be rehydrated by adding them to soups or stews if fresh produce isn't available.
4. Canned Fish and Poultry
Although fresh fish and poultry are packed with nutrients, they're highly perishable. All the same, canned varieties can be safely kept without refrigeration for long periods — up to 5 years at room temperature.
Tuna and other seafood products are also sold in lightweight packages known as retort pouches, which are perfect for smaller pantries and backpacking. Seafood in retort pouches has a shelf life of up to 18 months.
Chicken and other meats can be found in retort pouches as well, though you should refer to the packaging for shelf life information.
5. Nuts and Seeds
Nuts and seeds are portable, nutrient-dense, and shelf-stable, making them non-perishable food staples. Favored by backpackers and hikers for high calorie snacking, they're also great to have on hand in any situation.
On average, nuts last about 4 months when kept at or near room temperature (68℉ or 20℃), though shelf life varies greatly between nut varieties.
For example, cashews can be kept for 6 months at 68℉ (20℃) while pistachios only last 1 month at the same temperature.
Seeds have comparable shelf lives. According to the USDA, pumpkin seeds stay fresh for 6 months at room temperature.
Whole grains like oats, rice, and barley have a much longer shelf life than other popular but perishable carb sources like bread, making them a smart choice for long-term food storage.
For example, brown rice can be kept at 50–70℉ (10–21℃) for up to 3 months while farro lasts up to 6 months at room temperature.
Grains can be added to soups, salads, and casseroles, making them a versatile non-perishable ingredient. Plus, eating whole grains may reduce your risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and certain cancers.
7. Canned Vegetables and Fruits
Canning has long been used to lengthen the shelf life of perishable foods, including fruits and vegetables.
The heat used during canning kills potentially harmful microorganisms, and the characteristic seal of canned foods keeps new bacteria from spoiling the contents.
The shelf life of canned fruits and vegetables depends on the type of produce.
On the other hand, high-acid fruits like grapefruit, apples, peaches, berries, and pineapple last just 12–18 months. The same goes for vegetables packed in vinegar, such as sauerkraut, German potato salad, and other pickled vegetables.
When shopping, choose canned fruits packed in water or 100% fruit juice rather than heavy syrup, and opt for low sodium canned veggies whenever possible.
If you're crafty in the kitchen, consider canning at home using store-bought or garden-grown vegetables and fruits. If you don't know how, you can consult numerous books or online tutorials.
Meat preservation is a practice used since ancient times to keep protein sources from spoiling. Specifically, jerky is made by curing meat in a salt solution, then dehydrating it. Preservatives, flavorings, and other additives are sometimes used during processing.
Many types of jerky are available, including beef, salmon, chicken, and buffalo. There are even plant-based jerky alternatives made from coconut, banana, and jackfruit. That said, note that these alternatives are not nutritionally equivalent to meat-based jerkies.
Any kind of jerky can be enjoyed in moderation, but the healthiest options are those that don't contain added sugar, artificial flavors, or preservatives.
9. Granola and Protein Bars
Granola and protein bars are a go-to food for backpackers and hikers thanks to their long shelf life and nutrient composition.
Many granola bars stay fresh for up to 1 year at room temperature. Likewise, most protein bars have a shelf life of at least 1 year, though it's best to check the label on individual products for expiration information.
What's more, granola and protein bars can be highly nutritious as long as you choose the right kinds. Look for brands that are full of hearty ingredients, such as oats, nuts, and dried fruit, and contain minimal added sugars and artificial ingredients.
Canned and dried soups are an excellent choice when stocking your pantry. They're also preferred by food donation organizations.
Most canned soups are low in acid and can last up to 5 years at room temperature. The exception is tomato-based varieties, which have a shelf life of about 18 months.
Although most dried soup mixes should last up to 1 year in storage, it's best to check labels for expiration dates.
Choose soups that are rich in healthy ingredients like vegetables and beans, and select low sodium products whenever possible, as consuming too much added salt may harm your health.
11. Freeze Dried Meals
Freeze drying uses sublimation, a process in which ice is converted directly into vapor, to remove water from food so that it lasts longer at room temperature. Freeze dried meals are popular among backpackers because of their light weight and portability.
12. Shelf-Stable Milk and Nondairy Milk
While fresh milk and some nondairy alternatives like almond and coconut milks have to be refrigerated, shelf-stable milk and many nondairy milks are made to keep at room temperature.
Shelf-stable or aseptic milk is processed and packaged differently than regular milk because it's heated to higher temperatures and packed in sterile containers.
One study found that shelf-stable milk had a shelf life of up to 9 months when kept at 40–68℉ (4–20℃).
Plant-based drinks like soy milk packaged in flexible materials, including plastic, paper, and aluminum, similarly last up to 10 months, while canned coconut milk keeps up to 5 years at room temperature.
Shelf-stable and plant-based milks can be used when refrigeration isn't available. Powdered milk is a good alternative, with an estimated shelf life of 3–5 years when kept in a cool, dark place. It can be reconstituted with clean water in small portions as needed.
The Bottom Line
Non-perishable foods last a long time without spoiling and are necessary for numerous situations.
Whether you want to donate items to charitable organizations, prepare for potential emergencies, purchase backpacking-friendly products, or merely stock your pantry, you can choose from an abundance of healthy foods that don't require refrigeration.
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By Sherry H-Y. Chou, Aarti Sarwal and Neha S. Dangayach
The patient in the case report (let's call him Tom) was 54 and in good health. For two days in May, he felt unwell and was too weak to get out of bed. When his family finally brought him to the hospital, doctors found that he had a fever and signs of a severe infection, or sepsis. He tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 infection. In addition to symptoms of COVID-19, he was also too weak to move his legs.
When a neurologist examined him, Tom was diagnosed with Guillain-Barre Syndrome, an autoimmune disease that causes abnormal sensation and weakness due to delays in sending signals through the nerves. Usually reversible, in severe cases it can cause prolonged paralysis involving breathing muscles, require ventilator support and sometimes leave permanent neurological deficits. Early recognition by expert neurologists is key to proper treatment.
We are neurologists specializing in intensive care and leading studies related to neurological complications from COVID-19. Given the occurrence of Guillain-Barre Syndrome in prior pandemics with other corona viruses like SARS and MERS, we are investigating a possible link between Guillain-Barre Syndrome and COVID-19 and tracking published reports to see if there is any link between Guillain-Barre Syndrome and COVID-19.
Some patients may not seek timely medical care for neurological symptoms like prolonged headache, vision loss and new muscle weakness due to fear of getting exposed to virus in the emergency setting. People need to know that medical facilities have taken full precautions to protect patients. Seeking timely medical evaluation for neurological symptoms can help treat many of these diseases.
What Is Guillain-Barre Syndrome?
Guillain-Barre syndrome occurs when the body's own immune system attacks and injures the nerves outside of the spinal cord or brain – the peripheral nervous system. Most commonly, the injury involves the protective sheath, or myelin, that wraps nerves and is essential to nerve function.
Without the myelin sheath, signals that go through a nerve are slowed or lost, which causes the nerve to malfunction.
To diagnose Guillain-Barre Syndrome, neurologists perform a detailed neurological exam. Due to the nerve injury, patients often may have loss of reflexes on examination. Doctors often need to perform a lumbar puncture, otherwise known as spinal tap, to sample spinal fluid and look for signs of inflammation and abnormal antibodies.
Studies have shown that giving patients an infusion of antibodies derived from donated blood or plasma exchange – a process that cleans patients' blood of harmful antibodies - can speed up recovery. A very small subset of patients may need these therapies long-term.
The majority of Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients improve within a few weeks and eventually can make a full recovery. However, some patients with Guillain-Barre Syndrome have lingering symptoms including weakness and abnormal sensations in arms and/or legs; rarely patients may be bedridden or disabled long-term.
Guillain-Barre Syndrome and Pandemics
As the COVID-19 pandemic sweeps across the globe, many neurologic specialists have been on the lookout for potentially serious nervous system complications such as Guillain-Barre Syndrome.
Though Guillain-Barre Syndrome is rare, it is well known to emerge following bacterial infections, such as Campylobacter jejuni, a common cause of food poisoning, and a multitude of viral infections including the flu virus, Zika virus and other coronaviruses.
Studies showed an increase in Guillain-Barre Syndrome cases following the 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic, suggesting a possible connection. The presumed cause for this link is that the body's own immune response to fight the infection turns on itself and attacks the peripheral nerves. This is called an "autoimmune" condition. When a pandemic affects as many people as our current COVID-19 crisis, even a rare complication can become a significant public health problem. That is especially true for one that causes neurological dysfunction where the recovery takes a long time and may be incomplete.
Though there is clear clinical suspicion that COVID-19 can lead to Guillain-Barre Syndrome, many important questions remain. What are the chances that someone gets Guillain-Barre Syndrome during or following a COVID-19 infection? Does Guillain-Barre Syndrome happen more often in those who have been infected with COVID-19 compared to other types of infections, such as the flu?
The only way to get answers is through a prospective study where doctors perform systematic surveillance and collect data on a large group of patients. There are ongoing large research consortia hard at work to figure out answers to these questions.
Understanding the Association Between COVID-19 and Guillain-Barre Syndrome
While large research studies are underway, overall it appears that Guillain-Barre Syndrome is a rare but serious phenomenon possibly linked to COVID-19. Given that more than 10.7 million cases have been reported for COVID-19, there have been 10 reported cases of COVID-19 patients with Guillain-Barre Syndrome so far – only two reported cases in the U.S., five in Italy, two cases in Iran and one from Wuhan, China.
It is certainly possible that there are other cases that have not been reported. The Global Consortium Study of Neurological Dysfunctions in COVID-19 is actively underway to find out how often neurological problems like Guillain-Barre Syndrome is seen in hospitalized COVID-19 patients. Also, just because Guillain-Barre Syndrome occurs in a patient diagnosed with COVID-19, that does not imply that it was caused by the virus; this still may be a coincident occurrence. More research is needed to understand how the two events are related.
Due to the pandemic and infection-containment considerations, diagnostic tests, such as a nerve conduction study that used to be routine for patients with suspected Guillain-Barre Syndrome, are more difficult to do. In both U.S. cases, the initial diagnosis and treatment were all based on clinical examination by a neurological experts rather than any tests. Both patients survived but with significant residual weakness at the time these case reports came out, but that is not uncommon for Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients. The road to recovery may sometimes be long, but many patients can make a full recovery with time.
Though the reported cases of Guillain-Barre Syndrome so far all have severe symptoms, this is not uncommon in a pandemic situation where the less sick patients may stay home and not present for medical care for fear of being exposed to the virus. This, plus the limited COVID-19 testing capability across the U.S., may skew our current detection of Guillain-Barre Syndrome cases toward the sicker patients who have to go to a hospital. In general, the majority of Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients do recover, given enough time. We do not yet know whether this is true for COVID-19-related cases at this stage of the pandemic. We and colleagues around the world are working around the clock to find answers to these critical questions.
Sherry H-Y. Chou is an Associate Professor of Critical Care Medicine, Neurology, and Neurosurgery, University of Pittsburgh.
Aarti Sarwal is an Associate Professor, Neurology, Wake Forest University.
Neha S. Dangayach is an Assistant Professor of Neurology and Neurosurgery, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.
Disclosure statement: Sherry H-Y. Chou receives funding from The University of Pittsburgh Clinical Translational Science Institute (CTSI), the National Institute of Health, and the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine Dean's Faculty Advancement Award. Sherry H-Y. Chou is a member of Board of Directors for the Neurocritical Care Society. Neha S. Dangayach receives funding from the Bee Foundation, the Friedman Brain Institute, the Neurocritical Care Society, InCHIP-UConn Center for mHealth and Social Media Seed Grant. She is faculty for emcrit.org and for AiSinai. Aarti Sarwal does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
Reposted with permission from The Conversation.