As much as sugar has been demonized in recent years, it’s still an important part of our diet. In fact, from an evolutionary standpoint, our sugar cravings helped keep us alive, and having a sweet tooth is a natural human trait.
The good news is that sugar is one of the few food items that never goes bad. Although sugars have an expiry date timed for around two years after packaging, this is only food companies ticking the boxes – by law, they have to include expiry dates on their products.
In reality, all kinds of packaged sugar will last indefinitely. While sugar may suffer from cosmetic and textural changes – depending on the storage method – it’s safe to use for as long as you need it.
Although the average baker will go through sugar at a rapid rate, there may come a time when you pull a packet out of the cupboard and wonder, does sugar go bad and how can I tell?
Shelf Life & Expiration Dates
Sugar runs the gamut from fine powdered sugar to cubes, and is a great addition to many of our favorite foods. Simple storage techniques can keep this staple in pristine condition for up to two years.
- Raw/Cane Sugar – Indefinitely. If exposed to moisture, can become hardened and form rocks, but is still edible.
- Granulated Sugar/White Sugar – Indefinitely. Can harden if exposed to moisture. Simply break up and use as normal.
- Sugar Cubes – Indefinitely.
- Powdered Sugar/Confectioners Sugar – Indefinitely, but retains the best qualities up to two years. Can become lumpy if exposed to moisture.
- Brown/Golden Sugar – Indefinitely, but best within two years.
- Beet Sugar/Coconut Sugar – Indefinitely.
- Sweet n Low/Splenda – Indefinitely when stored correctly.
The “best by” dates on sugar packaging are only an indication of how long sugar can retain the ultimate qualities of texture and taste. Sugar will last far beyond those given dates when stored correctly.
The same goes for most artificial sweeteners. They have many of the same qualities as good, old-fashioned sugar, therefore can last indefinitely.
SEE ALSO: How To Read Expiration Dates
How To Tell If Sugar Is Bad
By its very nature, sugar does not go bad. When stored in the optimal conditions, it will stay good for a very long time.
However, sugar is a crystal, and over time it will form lumps and clumps. Sugars don’t turn rancid, but can undergo texture changes making them difficult or undesirable to use. This doesn’t impact safety, but the texture can be off-putting.
If you do find any odd smells emanating from your sugar, it’s likely that the granules have absorbed aromas from other foodstuffs in the environment – this is not an indication of rancidity.
White or raw sugars such as beet sugar, coconut sugar and cane sugar will all start to form hard lumps, clumps or solid rocks if exposed to moisture.
To break down those lumps and get your loose granules back, you can throw them in a sealed plastic bag and use a rolling pin to break them up, then whip them through a food processor or coffee grinder.
For a quick fix, pop your hardened sugar into a microwave-safe container with a light sprinkling of water and zap it for five minutes. This should loosen it up enough for you to break up the rest with a fork.
Brown sugar is slightly different. It is millions of individual grains of sugar, each coated with molasses. As long as the molasses stays moist, brown sugar can be shaped and packed.
Brown sugar is moist, so it clumps. If you’ve ever built a sand castle by packing moist sand into buckets and stacking the packed sand into a wall, you know how brown sugar should feel. It doesn’t pour well, but it can be packed.
Brown sugar technically has the same shelf life as white granular sugar – that is, indefinite. However, if exposed to air, brown sugar can quickly be rendered unusable. As opposed to white sugars, brown sugar needs the moisture to stay manageable.
An easy fix for hardened brown sugar is to put a slice of bread or a few chunks of apple into the container with the sugar overnight to restore the lost moisture.
It’s important to note that everybody likes sugar, including pests. Probably the only reason your sugar will become inedible is if it’s infested with ants or other creepy crawlies.
Can Sugar Go Bad And Make You Sick?
You’ll be pleased to know that you cannot get sick from eating old sugar, even if it is many years past the expiry date – it simply doesn’t go bad. Of course, this is disregarding any sugar-related diseases or health issues in general!
In reality, sugar is prized as a preservative precisely because it does not support the growth of bacteria. This was discovered centuries ago, and is why sugar is used to preserve jams, juices and many other goodies.
In a nutshell, sugar LOVES water and will absorb any that is present in the environment – hence the propensity for clumping and hardening.
Bacteria and microbes require water to grow and thrive. Effectively, sugar absorbs all the water in an environment – instead, the sugar molecules are absorbed into the food. Therefore, the nasties that make other food go bad can’t survive in environments where there is a lot of sugar.
Best Tips To Prevent Sugar From Going Bad
The two main things you need to protect your sugar from are moisture and pests.
Anyone who has inadvertently left a few granules of spilt sugar lying around knows how easy it is to become rapidly overrun by ants! Protecting your food investments by storing them in bug-proof containers will make it easier to keep your kitchen clean.
The best place to store all sugar is in an air-tight receptacle, in a cool, dark environment such as a pantry or cupboard.
This will also prevent your sugar from picking up aromas from other food. The material of the receptacle is not important, as long as you have an air-tight seal to keep those bugs at bay.
Reducing air exposure is as easy as keeping brown sugar in a freezer bag. As you use it, force the air out of the bag before you seal it. Once sealed, you can put the freezer bag inside an airtight plastic container for even more protection.
Be careful that it is stored away from heat sources like your oven or microwave, as these can cause condensation to form in your containers, hardening the contents.
We don’t recommend storing any sugars in the fridge – sugar needs a low moisture environment and will do better in a nice, cool cupboard.
Some home cooks add a marshmallow or a piece of bread to stored brown sugar to keep it from turning into a brick. Just be sure to replace it often so the bread doesn’t become moldy.