Fruitcake – Will It Last Forever?

Chris Murphy of Sloan (a top-5 band on the pantheon of Canadian rock and roll) pines on Action Pact that ‘nothing lasts for ever any more.’

Fruitcake might.

But as Schaffner says, ‘it depends’ on some a few factors.

My friend and colleague, Matt Shipman from NC State News Services tackled the question  of fruitcake preservation on The Abstract, the first of a series of holiday posts.

I’ve always thought that, in the event of a nuclear apocalypse, the Earth will be populated solely by cockroaches, those Styrofoam hamburger containers that fast-food joints used in the 1980s, and fruitcakes. Since this is the season for loved ones to inflict fruitcakes on one another, I decided to get to the bottom of this mystery: will fruitcakes really last forever?Fruitcake-848x477

As it turns out, the answer depends on how you define “fruitcake.” 

Most fruitcake recipes include dried nuts, dried fruit, and “candied” fruit or peel (meaning the fruit has been both dried and preserved in sugar). [Note: not all fruitcakes are made this way, see the safety note below.]

The U.S. Department of Agriculture says that fruitcake will last two to three months in the refrigerator without spoiling, and will maintain its quality if stored up to a year in the freezer. But it’s a federal agency’s job to think of the worst-case scenario. Could fruitcakes really last longer? (and FDA says that the water activity of a fruitcake, although there’s not a standard identity for one, is between .73 and .83 – ben)

“All of these dried and candied ingredients have what we call ‘low water activity,’ meaning they have very little moisture available,” says Ben Chapman, a food safety researcher at NC State. “Low water activity is important because many microorganisms, including foodborne illness-causing bacteria, need moisture in order to reproduce.

“In practical terms, this makes most fruitcakes extremely shelf stable, so they would be safe to eat for a long time – a really long time,” Chapman says. “But it might taste pretty bad.”

That’s because a lot of things can significantly affect the quality of the fruitcake.

For example, mold could grow on the surface of a fruitcake, or yeast could cause some of the sugars in the fruitcake to ferment.

“But some people wrap their fruitcakes in linen that’s been soaked in rum or other spirits to reduce the chance of mold or yeast problems,” Chapman says.

“However, rancidity may still be an issue. Fruitcakes contain a variety of proteins, from eggs to butter to nuts – even the fruit items. And when proteins are exposed to air, they can become oxidized, which can create rancid flavors and odors,” Chapman explains.

So, while you may be able to save that fruitcake forever, you should probably eat it now.

Safety Note: If a fruitcake has a significant amount of moisture (e.g., if it was made with fresh fruit) it is more likely to spoil or to give pathogens enough moisture to reproduce. In other words, it could make you sick if not kept refrigerated and eaten relatively quickly.

Don’t try to be Rachel Ray if you’re canning

Home food preservation is seeing a resurgence across North America. Some of this is due to economics, some is linked to eating local (and others are just curious what all the buzz is about). Earlier this year seed companies reported increases in home garden sales (potentially leading to more canning) and North Carolina extension agents have told me that canning inquiries have almost doubled over previous years.

I’ve even been challenged to a pickle making throw-down (more on that later).

The New York Times, Washington Post and USA Today have all recently covered home food preservation. My contribution to the coverage was reinforcing the importance of following tested recipes (and not messing around with them). Kim Painter of USA Today used my money-shot quote:

"This is one area where you don’t want to be Rachael Ray. You don’t want to add your flair" to recipes and techniques backed by good science and rigorous testing, says Ben Chapman, a food safety specialist at North Carolina State University.

Keep your flair out of home food preservation and stick to methods that have been evaluated for safety.

New food safety infosheet — 3 in Spokane sickened by botulism linked to home canned beans

Canning season is just about to start. I’ve never really done any home food preservation before. Growing up all I was really exposed to, canning-wise, was pickles, freezer jam and frozen peaches. All of which I loved to eat, but I always found ways to occupy myself while my mom and grandmother were making them for fear of having to help. My dad and grandfather usually golfed while this was all going down.

Golfing is sort of out of the question now that I have a nine-month-old crawling around the house, so I’m taking up canning. I’m heading out to Walmart this week to grab the Ball Home Canning Basics kit and start experimenting.

Maybe experimenting might now be the right word. I don’t really want to experiment too much when the consequences can be so drastic. This week’s food safety infosheet focuses on an outbreak from earlier this year in Spokane, WA. Reportedly a 30-year-old Washington State nurse and her two children became ill with botulism reportedly acquired from canned green beans. The nurse’s illness was so severe that she required a ventilator to breath for months.

Though reliable data is often hard to access, other recent outbreaks linked to the potentially complicated processes of home preservation have contributed to the national burden of foodborne illness. Illnesses have been linked to home preservation in numerous states. As recent as September 2008, an Ohio man and his grandson were hospitalized as a result of botulism toxin poisoning caused by improperly canned green beans. In 2007 a Virginia couple died after consuming improperly canned foods that also contained botulism toxin.  There have been at least seven other outbreaks of botulism linked to home preservation practices across the U.S. since 1995. Improperly processed home-dried jerky products have also recently been linked to Salmonella and pathogenic E. coli outbreaks.

You can download this week’s food safety infosheet here.