Emergency Food Vs. Grocery Store Food: What's the REAL Difference?

If there’s one thing we Americans have a lot of, it’s meal options. Stores these days are bursting with variety. The typical grocer carries 40 to 50 thousand items on average!

Long-term foods are no exception. There are tons of options out there for stocking up and you can get lost in them pretty quickly if you don't know what to look for.

In today’s post we’re going to help make shopping a lot easier with an in-depth look at two of the most popular places to go for food storage: grocery stores and emergency food suppliers.

We’ll lay out the most important things to look for when you’re shopping for long-term foods. Then we'll do a side-by-side comparison to see how grocery and emergency store products stack up—so next time you’re on the hunt for emergency food you’ll know what to look for and where to find it!

First thing to look for—water-removed foods

There are lots of foods with surprisingly long shelf lives. Canned items, spaghetti sauce, peanut butter (just to name a few) are all famous for lasting well beyond their expiration dates.

Here’s the problem, though. For the most part, even long-lasting products have some form of water or oil inside. And when water and oil get into your foods, watch out! They end up looking like this:

 

Yuck.

Your best bet for long shelf life is to look for foods that have their moisture removed. And by far, the two most effective methods for doing that are dehydration and freeze drying.

DEHYDRATION: Simply put, dehydration removes water via evaporation. Hot air is introduced into a chamber containing food till liquid becomes gas and floats away. Voila!

FREEZE DRYING: This method’s a little more space-age than dehydration, and it’s actually even more effective. Food is flash frozen and placed in a vacuum. In that environment, ice skips the liquid phase and turns right into vapor.

Dehydrated banana chips

This is process is called sublimation. It gets rid 98 percent of water and does very little damage to cells, which means food holds on to its taste and nutritional value.

SHOPPING FOR DEHYDRATED & FREEZE-DRIED FOODS

Dehydrated and freeze-dried foods are super easy to find. Emergency suppliers carry them by the hundreds, and even grocery stores keep plenty in stock.

Here's a listing for freeze-dried foods at one popular big box store. This search alone brought up over 100 results.

freeze-dried foods at online storeWith so many options, the tough part is figuring out which of these foods are good for long-term storage, because not every one of them is going to be up to the task. Just because a product is dehydrated or freeze-dried doesn't mean it will last. Unless additional steps are taken to protect them, these foods will grow mold and spoil.

Next up—look for foods protected from outside threats

This is why it's so important to look for products that protect not just from the inside, but from outside threats as well.

The biggest threat to long-term foods is oxygen, so you want to make sure anything you pick up for your supply contains an oxygen absorber. These simple little pouches use iron powder to absorb the oxygen in a sealed package. And without oxygen to spoil it, freeze-dried and dehydrate foods inside can last even longer.

But how many of foods actually come with oxygen absorbers?

To answer this question, we headed to a popular big box store and picked up some freeze dried and dehydrated foods ourselves (field trip!). We took them home and tried them out side-by-side with Ready Hour emergency food, one of the brands we sell at BePrepared.com.

Here’s what we found

FREEZE-DRIED FOODS: GROCERY VS. EMERGENCY STORE

Freeze-dried strawberries comparison

At the big box store, we chose freeze-dried strawberries from a well-known brand you’ll find most everywhere (pictured above on the right, alongside a Ready Hour strawberry package). As you can see, there’s no oxygen absorber in the grocery store strawberries.

The grocery store strawberries were purchased on August 10, 2020 with a “best-by” date of January 3, 2021, giving them less than a year shelf life. That's in part is due to the fact that they were sold almost a year after the production date. Either way, you're not getting much more than that out of them. This is pretty typical of most freeze-dried foods that aren’t adequately protected against oxygen.

And even though lots of grocery store foods like these can last a year or two beyond their shelf life, we don't recommend counting on that in an emergency.

Ready hour freeze dried strawberries open pouch

In this picture you see a comparable Ready Hour Strawberry pouch. There's the oxygen absorber, right in the package. That’s one of the reasons it has a 25-year shelf life.

DEHYDRATED FOODS: GROCERY VS. EMERGENCY STORE

Banana chip comparison

As a counterpart to our freeze-dried strawberries, here are some dehydrated banana chips. To make sure we were representing the different options at a big box store, we chose a generic, in-house brand (on the left). Ready Hour banana chips are pictured on the right. Like the name-brand strawberries, there’s no oxygen absorber inside the grocery store banana chips. 

 

The grocery store banana chips were purchased on August 10, 2020 with a “best-by” date of January 13, 2022, giving it about a year-and-a-half shelf life after purchase.

Ready hour banana chip pouch open

Here are the Ready Hour banana chips. Again, the oxygen absorber sits with the food, protecting against mold and extending its life. And it shows. Compared to the one-and-a-half-year shelf life of the grocery store banana chips, this pouch will last 10 years.

MAC & CHEESE: GROCERY VS. EMERGENCY STORE

Finally, we picked up some macaroni and cheese. It may not qualify as a “dehydrated” food exactly (though the cheese powder is prepared through a “spray drying” technique) but it’s super popular option for emergency stockpiling.

 

The mac and cheese we chose comes from a well-known brand we’ve seen on lots of prepper shelves (pictured above on the right). As you would expect, there’s no oxygen absorber inside. What’s more, the cheese pouch is made of a paper product with lining that does little to shield against oxygen (but that could protect against moisture).

The grocery store mac and cheese was purchased on August 10, 2020 with a “best-by” date of January 29, 2021, giving it less than a year shelf life. Like the products we looked at above, lots of mac and cheese will last a ways past its datethough again, we don't advise relying on fact as you plan your emergency supply.

 

This is a pouch of Ready Hour mac and cheese. The first thing you'll notice is the oxygen absorber. Second, you'll see that the cheese is mixed right in with the pasta. Unlike store-bought mac and cheese, the absorber and packaging are such a protective combo that there's no need for a separate cheese pouch. This product lasts up to 25 years.

LESSONS 

Our little homes test demonstrates a few things.

First, freeze-dried and dehydrated foods at the grocery store are not designed for shelf life. Everything from the lack of an oxygen absorbers to the packaging and the clearly stated, relatively short shelf life, shows that they aren’t even meant to be long-term food storage.

Second is the importance of checking the production date on grocery store items. Like we saw with the freeze-dried strawberries, because they don't last as long in the first place, half a product's shelf life can be eaten away just sitting in inventory. By the time you take it home, it may only have a few months left.

Finally, extended shelf life takes more than just an oxygen absorber. There are factors at play that like packaging that are crucial for extending shelf life.

 

Finally, shop like a pro. Look for multiple layers of protection.

Freeze-dried and dehydrated foods with oxygen absorbers are a good start. But when you’re on the hunt for foods that will remain fresh for a decade or longer, you need to think like a prepper and see those criteria as just a starting point—because that’s what they are.

Enemies of shelf life: water, oxygen, pests, chemicals, and sun

The enemies of shelf life—oxygen, moisture, sunlight, pests, chemical leaching—are everywhere! They’ll penetrate moisture-removed foods and they’ll even slip past many oxygen absorbers.

True long-term food requires many other layers of protection. These are what you need to be looking out for when you’re shopping.

LAYER: ENOUGH OXYGEN ABSORPTION FOR THE JOB

As we saw above, unlike other manufacturers, most emergency food companies invest in placing oxygen absorbers in all of their foods. Military standards dictate that long-term food packages should contain a two-percent oxygen at most. Once you start getting to three percent and above, the chances of spoilage before the shelf-life date go way up.

Average oxygen levels graph

Case in point: a 2015 study found that many emergency preparation companies (even the ones that use oxygen absorbers) produced packaged foods containing well over three percent oxygen levels. Some of the very largest manufacturers had oxygen levels above 10 percent!

The problem? Their absorbers were too small to oxidize the pouches to proper levels. Oxygen is measured in cubic centimeters (cc). To get oxygen levels down to the two percent range you need an absorber large enough (enough ccs) to handle your container size.

This isn’t to say that everyone is using too-small oxygen absorbers. Mountain House has tested at or below two percent. The Ready Hour food pouches we opened also test at those levels.

Their secret—and something you’ll want to look out for when shopping for long-term food—is that they use extra-large absorbers. Ready Hour inserts 200cc absorbers into all their foods. This is double or quadruple the required size, but they’ve found that that’s what it takes to keep foods fresh for decades.

LAYER: FREQUENT OXYGEN TESTING

Unlike grocery store foods that that are made to eat quickly, long-term food producers worth their salt will invest a lot to ensure the stated shelf life of 10, 20, or 30 years can truly be met.

Oxygen level testing: cans and pouches

That’s why, in addition to investing in the right oxygen absorbers, they’ll also submit their product to regular oxygen testing. Ready Hour foods products, for example, go through rigorous testing on a weekly basis using an advanced device (the Oxybaby 6.0 headspace gas analyzer) that detects oxygen levels

The analyzer is manually inserted into either pouches or cans and within eight seconds detects oxygen levels down to .01%

LAYER: THE RIGHT PACKAGING FOR THE JOB

In the same way that the right oxygen absorber must be used, the right packaging is every bit as important for emergency food. For long-term food packaging, there are two things to look for—the quality of material and a 100% seal.

Going back to our home test, the grocery store packaging for the freeze-dried strawberries and dehydrated banana chips came in stand-up pouches made from linear polyethylene resin. These bags are multi-layer and fantastic, but they are crafted for a very specific purpose: to protect food from damage and contamination during transportation and on retail shelving.

What they aren’t made to do is to withstand the 30 years of elements, bugs, chemicals, etc. that long-term storage can be subjected to.

As we made sure to point out in the comparison pictures above, the Ready Hour packaging is made of sturdier stuff. The food is protected in a four-layer proprietary film consisting of polymer and metallic layers. This material will to stand up to all the things that grocery store packaging will not, and it shows in the significant increase in shelf life.

Polyproylene buckets with emergency food

Those Ready Hour pouches, by the way, are zipper protected. On top of that, they’re almost always stored inside an industrial-grade food bucket with thick, polypropylene walls. These add an extra layer of protection that will stand up to abuse and stack easily in tight spaces.

And then there’s the #10 can—a food storage classic for a reason. For our home test we used the polymer/metallic pouches, but you’re more likely to find Ready Hour's strawberries, banana chips, mac and cheese, and most other foods in a #10 can.

When it comes to durability and multi-utility, these aren’t even in the same universe as grocery store plastic. They’re heavier and metallic, so they can take more rugged use. They also fit a lot more food per container and stack more easily.

And then there's the cost—this might surprise you

In our analysis, there’s one thing that hasn’t been touched on yet that I know we’re all thinking about: the cost. Between extra-large absorbers, oxygen testing, and polymer metallic packaging, it’s easy to imagine how the price of emergency food could quickly eclipse its grocery store counterparts.

And yes, freeze-dried and dehydrated foods made by emergency manufacturers are generally more expensive than what you’ll find at the grocery store. But when you do the math, the cost difference isn’t as significant as you might think.

UPFRONT COST

Lots of times when you hear complaints about the cost of emergency food versus grocery store food, you’re looking at upfront costs.

Those Strawberries from our test, for example? They cost $3.48 per pouch.

Strawberry and banana price tags

For comparison, the Ready Hour freeze-dried strawberries we sell in a #10 can on BePrepared.com retail for $30.

At first glance that’s a big difference, but it’s not the whole story.

LONG-TERM COST

Even though a #10 can of Ready Hour strawberries costs a lot more than the grocery store pouches, it also gives you seven to eight times the amount of fruit in a single package.

Another way to put it is the grocery store strawberries cost $4.35 per ounce, while the Ready Hour strawberries cost about $4.75 per ounce.

So, are the emergency strawberries more expensive? Yes. But if you break down the cost, it’s not by much. And if you take into account all those extra layers of protection the value starts to add up.

Plus, don’t forget: with grocery store food you have to rotate out items that go bad and replace them on a regular basis. It’s a headache, and the costs start to pile up. As a one-time purchase, emergency store food pays you back pretty quickly and is actually the least expensive option in the long run.

Conclusion

If it’s not clear by now, when it comes to long-term storage, standard grocery store food just cannot compete with the products you'll find through emergency suppliers.

This makes all the sense in the world, when you think about it. Grocery store foods, even the freeze-dried and dehydrated foods varieties, are made to eat quickly. 99 percent of shoppers don’t need those foods to last for more than a few weeks, which means manufacturers have no incentive to make the investments that emergency companies do—like configuring a production line to drop oxygen absorbers into every package or investing in more durable pouches and cans. 

Cans on an assembly line

Emergency food manufacturers, on the other, make those investments, and they pay off in the long run.

Ultimately, even though they might look the same to the untrained eye, grocery store foods and emergency foods are very different products. If you’re looking to invest your time and money in supplies that will last many years and prepare you for disaster, there’s really only one option, and that’s true emergency food.

8 comments

Susan Hansen

Susan Hansen

Do you have a gluten-free line of prepared foods??

Mar Bly

Mar Bly

This is excellent content As a Ph.D. retired, I can tell you that no one has put out information like this. Thrive does the food as immediately as is humanly possible and makes usually single food cans (I prefer these) Other companies say they are organic. But, do not give you any of this info. I am printing this off so I can explain to others why the high price is not so high.
QUESTION: I have almost 10 year old #10 cans stored. Did they have the extra O2 absorbers – I f.d. at home and always put more O2 absorbers in that I think it needs.

Any info on pests and mylar bags???

Emergency Essentials

Emergency Essentials

Good question, Raymond. One of the first things to focus on when planning how much food per person is calories. Usually for an adult, you’re going to want to be somewhere between 1,800 and 2,200 calories per day. Beyond that you want to look for foods that are complete as possible in nutrients: fats, carbs, and protein are very important in an emergency.

Emergency Essentials

Emergency Essentials

Thanks for asking, Ruth. BePrepared.com carries a variety of products. A good place to start searching is here: https://beprepared.com.

Ruth Perkins

Ruth Perkins

W here do I find your products

Raymond

Raymond

I would like to know the formula for how much food per person per day

max

max

This is true. I bought some freeze dried refried beans from the store. They went rancid in a few months.

Lynda

Lynda

Please start making prepared foods again. I’ve purchased a lot of prepared meals from you but haven’t seen any this year.

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