Coffee Can't Go Bad, Can It?

by Pamela J. Hobart

It's Monday morning, and your office is fresh out of caffeine reserves. You gleefully spot an old bag of coffee lingering in the back of the icky shared fridge, but uh, does coffee go bad? It might sound like a silly question, but the answer could be the difference between you having a productive morning and one where you wish you had just stayed home.

A quick look around online shows that there are as many ways of storing coffee as there are coffee drinkers. The merits of sealed coffee bags, permeable coffee bags, freezing, refrigerating, pre-grinding (or not), and fancy airtight aftermarket containers are all points of coffee contention. According to Eat By Date, even opened already-ground coffee lasts five months or so at room temperature, but I don't know any coffee hobbyists who would accept what is sure to be such a flavorless brew.

But as far as coffee actually going bad? By most accounts, it seems as though coffee won't spoil, so much as it will just go stale. Basically, coffee is a complex product because its porous structure, moisture content, aromas, and oils are all susceptible to environmental changes. However at the end of the day, all of these changes are related to quality, not safety.

Truth be told, I commonly purchase big plastic tubs of grocery store coffee to make iced coffee easily at home. In my opinion, it's much more important that iced coffee be strong than that it be made from any special beans. These mass market coffees are marked with a "best by" date a year away and vacuum-sealed in commercial factories, so I don't really give their food safety a second though. You can allegedly store iced coffee concentrate not even refrigerated for a week or two, but I keep mine chilled for good measure (and it doesn't last that long in my home anyways).

Whether coffee goes bad or expires is a separate issue from the mycotoxins in coffee, which are often present even in coffee that's been recently produced. Mycotoxins are the byproducts of a certain kind of coffee mold, and they are carcinogenic under certain conditions, although it remains unclear whether the amounts consumed by ordinary coffee drinkers have an adverse effect on health.

If you have an actual health problem or complaint that might be related to coffee or caffeine, you might try cutting it for a while, but coffee is quite healthy in general — and staleness is more of a problem than food safety. Cheers!

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Image: Pexels; Giphy