Is Stale Food Safe? How to Tell When Stale Food Is Safe to Eat

Medically Reviewed by Dany Paul Baby, MD on November 07, 2022
5 min read

There are few things more disappointing than going to your pantry for food, finding something good to eat, and taking a bite and realizing it’s stale. Sometimes, even if the texture is off, it might taste OK, but you’re still left wondering: is stale food safe to eat?

Scientists aren’t exactly sure what causes food to go stale, but they know it has something to do with a change in the chemical structure of the food. Because of that, different foods can go stale in different ways.

When bread goes stale, it gets hard. The ingredients in bread make the bread spongy and lock in moisture. Over time, the starch molecules in the bread break down, and the bread starts to lose moisture. Sometimes, the starches in the crust will also pull moisture from the inner, spongier part of the bread. 

Chips, on the other hand, have the opposite problem. Chips are flash-fried in hot oil to give them their delicious, crunchy texture. Frying them like this causes them to lose most of their moisture. Chips contain starch molecules that absorb water. When they’re left out in the open, they pull that water from the air around them, leading to them becoming less crunchy.

This is part of the reason chip bags have so much empty space. The main reason is that it keeps the chips from getting crushed on the truck or at the store, but the air inside is all nitrogen and no moisture. This prevents the chips from drawing in extra moisture.

So, is stale food bad for you? Will you get sick from eating stale food?

While the texture and taste of stale food might be a little off, so long as there isn’t anything else wrong with it, the food should be fine to eat. You’re not going to suffer any stale food side effects. But if your foods are showing other signs of going bad, like mold, it’s time to throw it out.

Pretty much any food product you purchase at the store is going to have some sort of expiration date on it. Instinct may be to throw that food out once it reaches that date, but many foods are perfectly fine to eat after this date.

There are four types of expiration dates that are commonly used:

  • “Best if Used By” and “Best if Used Before”: The dates on these labels indicate how long the product will be at its best flavor or quality. Foods after this date may be safe to eat, but the texture or taste may be slightly off.
  • “Sell By”: This is not a safety date. This label simply tells stores how long to display the item for inventory management.
  • “Use By”: This is usually not a safety date. This indicated the latest date that the manufacturer recommends using the product for the best results. 
  • “Freeze By”: This date is the latest date the product should be frozen and still maintain its best quality.

Products, with the exception of infant formula, are not forced to carry dates. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) oversees the product dating of infant formula, and infant formula should not be used after this date.

Need help telling if your food has gone bad? Check below for a brief guide.

Mold. Mold is one of the most obvious indicators that food has gone bad, but not all moldy foods are equal. Soft foods, like jams, lunch meat, soft fruits, and some breads, should be tossed if you find mold. If your bread is pre-sliced, you have a little more wiggle room. Mold is a fungus, and its roots can get deeper into the bread than you can see. With sliced bread, if one end of the bread is unaffected, you may be able to keep some of those pieces. 

Mold has a harder time getting through harder foods, like hard cheeses, carrots, and salami. In this case, you can cut the mold out, and the food is usually okay to eat.

Mold thrives in moist environments, and where there’s mold, there is often bacteria. While mold can cause respiratory problems and allergic reactions, bacteria can make you really sick. When in doubt, just throw the food away.

Bruising. Bruised produce may look ugly, but it’s still fine to eat. If the fruit is moldy, rotting, or infested, then it needs to be thrown out.

Separation. In many dairy foods, like yogurt, sour cream, and cottage cheese, the whey protein can gather at the top of the container. All you have to do is mix it back in. So long as there’s no mold and the food smells normal, it’s OK to eat. Milk that has separated and spoiled should be thrown out, though.

Change in appearance. A slight change in color doesn’t mean the food isn’t safe, especially for meat. Physical signs that meat has gone bad include mold and a sticky or slimy film.

Smell. If something smells rancid, it probably is. Some foods may change in scent slightly but still be fine. If you’re unsure, look it up online before eating.

Stale food can often be restored with some heat. Try microwaving your chips on high for 30 seconds or tossing your bread in a 140°F (60°C) oven for a few minutes.

When you’re trying to avoid having your food go stale, you want to consider the best environment for it.

  • A bread box or paper bag is the best way to store bread. This reduces moisture loss and prevents moisture buildup that leads to mold and bacteria.
  • Bread that won’t be used right away can be wrapped tightly and stored in the freezer. Bread put in the refrigerator will lose moisture faster.
  • Dry goods like rice and grains should be moved to airtight containers, but pasta can be kept in its original box. Keep them in a cool, dry place like your cupboard.
  • Things like chips, crackers, and cereal should be stored in a way that air can’t get in, either in an airtight container or in a sealed bag.