Does Frozen Food Really Expire?

Frozen food, from store-bought pizzas to homemade meals, has become a staple in many households for its simplicity and convenience in preparation. It's easy to whip up a large batch of tomato sauce or double a meatball recipe, for example, then store leftovers in the freezer to be pulled out at any time for a quick dinner. Plus, frozen food dinners are popular among grocery shoppers who don't always have time to cook lunch.

According to Live Science, the earliest refrigeration and freezer tactics date back to 1000 B.C., when the Chinese would store blocks of ice. It took far longer for modern refrigerator-freezer systems to reach American homes; those became more widely owned in the 1940s, just after World War II, says the National Museum of American History.

While there are general guidelines about how long food should be kept in the freezer, it's not always easy to identify a hard and fast answer on whether your frozen meals can actually go bad. Vague recommendations beg the question: Does frozen food actually expire?

Frozen food loses quality but does not expire

The short answer to the question is no. The thorough answer is that there's more to unpack. When food is stored in the freezer, it does have a shelf life in terms of quality. Over time, an item's flavor and texture can go from great to poor. This process is often referred to as freezer burn, reports Healthline, which occurs when water particles in food go through a process called sublimation: Ice crystals evaporate, turning moisture in the food from a frozen solid into a gas. This leaves the item dehydrated and, ultimately, undesirable in flavor and appearance. 

Despite its lack of appeal, freezer-burned food isn't dangerous to consume as long as it's kept at or below 0 degrees Fahrenheit, according to "Frozen food pretty much remains safe indefinitely," Caroline Passerrello, RDN and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, told Taste of Home.

When in doubt, use the best-by dates for frozen foods suggested by The organization says that the quality of frozen meat can persist anywhere from one month to one year, depending on the type. Fish can last as long as eight months before freezer burn starts to set in, and a freshly baked pumpkin pie will store well for two months. Other foods, such as egg yolks and live shellfish, should not be stored in the freezer.