Does Instant Coffee Expire or Go Bad?

instant coffee crystalsThough this blog isn’t typically dedicated to the foul-tasting, infernal instant coffee, this question isn’t one that we would typically raise. However, the question does instant coffee expire, leads us into some interesting territory about how people consume coffee.

Let’s dive into this topic and see what we can teach our readers about the immensely complex world of storing coffee and making it an instantly obtainable beverage.

To begin, the first rule of coffee is that fresh coffee is best, period.

Fresh ground, if you have the beans and a grinder; as close as possible to the date of purchase if you’ve bought your coffee pre-ground.

One thing that beginner coffee snobs might not realize is that if your beans simply smell flat, it’s going to taste flat. Since the smell of coffee is such an important part of its flavor profile then you’re going to be tasting that smell once beans are brewed so pay attention to that feature.

Unless it’s gone moldy, you shouldn’t get sick from expired coffee, but just because you can drink coffee that’s past its expiration date doesn’t mean that it’s a good idea. Freshness matters!

Even in the prominent brewing method that seems to be overtaking the world, it is possible for K-cups to go bad.

Instant Coffee Cliff Notes

instant coffeeI digress, back to instant coffee.

Instant coffee has been around since the early 1900s but boomed in popularity as part of soldiers’ C-rations in World War II.

The general rule of thumb here is that if the instant coffee has been opened then moisture from the air can get in and mold can grow. If you see a fine white haze then pass on consuming it. Also, any fungus or mold that is present mean this instant coffee is a no-go.

Peak flavor can vary, depending on the type of beans, the roast, and the brewing method used.

The safest option is to use coffee as close to the roasting date (not the expiration date) as possible. Now, some instant coffee brands will only tell you when the expiration date is, and although it is highly unlikely that the instant coffee is expired, as the process is fairly straightforward, it is asking for trouble to consume instant coffee that is years old.

A good rule of thumb, however, is that the expiration date is a year from the date on which the beans were roasted in most cases.

A contradictory point is that most experts say that instant coffee that has been sealed will never expire.

Understand that most coffees are packed with nitrogen to slow spoilage, but once the seal is broken, you’re trading nitrogen for oxygen and humidity, both of which rob your coffee of flavor. In the process which makes instant coffee, the liquid is dehydrated and turned into the powder we then use for instant coffee. This means that the lack of oxygen will make sure that degradation doesn’t happen at a similar rate of coffee grounds you’d buy in a can.

Expiration of your coffee will last depends on its form, as well as where and how it’s stored.

If the taste is your concern, your best bet is to store coffee in an airtight container somewhere cool, dry, and dark. Stored this way, ground coffee can be used for a few months past its expiration date, the whole bean for up to nine months, and instant coffee for up to twenty years.

Is Instant Coff All That Bad?

Despite having a fairly bad reputation among coffee enthusiasts, it’s likely that there isn’t much reasoning to back it up.

Instant coffee actually accounts for 77% of the coffee Brits buy to drink at home, according to market research. In Italy, it accounts for just 1%, in France 4% and 7% in the US.

The UK market for coffee at home is growing (yes, they are primarily still tea drinkers) and is now worth in excess of £1bn annually. Instant coffee has lost market share recently but still dominates over the likes of ground coffee and beans in the UK. Imagine that.

It’s the Americans who are largely credited with giving the UK the stuff.

coffee crumble cakeIt came over in the ration packs of US troops during World War Two. For a nation of coffee drinkers, it was a temporary solution to not having a freshly brewed “cup of Joe”. For a nation of tea drinkers, it was something new and exciting and caught on. They even used it to cook, as many do to this day. Coffee crumble cake, anyone?

Is Instant Coffee Bad For You?

Many will make an argument that due to all the artificial processing instant coffee has gone through, it is actually harmful regardless of how old it is. Some will note that instant coffee is known to be high in acrylamide, a cancer-causing chemical compound. So is instant coffee even safe to consume?

The FDA has reported for a few decades now that acrylamide can cause nerve damage. This compound is a result of the high-temperature heating process.

Instant coffee is also known to directly affect iron absorption.

This can be problematic because instant coffee has lower amounts of caffeine, this naturally leads to a greater consumption of to get that kick that whole bean or pre-ground coffee provides. Unfortunately, this increased consumption of instant coffee only makes us more prone to the health risks mentioned above.

Tips For Instant Coffee Storage

instant coffee storageIf the above section didn’t completely scare you off instant coffee, after all, it has its place in camping and spots where packing ground coffee isn’t easy, now let’s discuss the proper way to store instant coffee.

You can also store coffee in the freezer, which greatly extends its shelf life (anywhere from one to three years for whole bean and ground coffee, and practically indefinitely for the instant coffee type). However, freezing coffee practically destroys its flavor; the more interesting parts of the flavor profile vanish, and coffee that’s thawed from frozen will taste dull.

If you made too much this morning and don’t want to toss it down the drain try one of these ideas.

Most of the coffee beans used to make stir-and-go stuff aren’t the highest quality—they’re from cheap, often low-grown crops bought up by the millions of pounds by huge companies that mass-produce plastic tub after plastic tub of caffeinated convenience.

As long as your coffee is stored properly (unopened, sealed, dry), it’s safe to drink for years. In fact, a lot of grocery stores and big chains keep coffee on the shelf for several months on their own, never mind the amount of time it will sit in someone’s cupboard.

If you found old coffee that you’re thinking about drinking, inspect it first. Do not brew it if the coffee:

  • Has been stored without being tightly sealed
  • Is wet in any way
  • Smells of mildew or contains any visible mold

The Complexity of the Coffee Molecule

Coffee — whether it exists in bean or ground form, or it’s sitting in front of you in a cup — is made up of as many as a thousand different compounds these include carbs, lipids, and acids that we want and need in our cup of brew.

Since coffee beans are made up of soluble compounds, which dissolve into water to create our favorite morning beverage—this is what makes the brew go from clear to the dark color we obsess over. Ideally, about 18 to 22 percent of the solubles in coffee will be pulled out by the water.

For most coffee-making methods, whether you make yourself a delicious French press, for instance, or manually pour brew using a Melitta-style cone—this process takes in the ballpark of three to four minutes, and you’re left with spent grounds in your filter or pot.

With the passage of time, those compounds undergo physical and chemical changes that alter the aroma and taste of both the raw material and the finished product. Carbs go stale, lipids go rancid, volatile organic compounds evaporate, and other components change with exposure to oxygen (oxidation) or water. Even small changes can have a significant impact on the taste of your coffee.

Use your judgment and be careful about what you brew.

Since we know that instant coffee can’t really go bad if still sealed or left unexposed to moisture, it can be deemed safe to consume. However, there’s still some members of the jury undecided whether the instant coffee you stir into hot water is even good enough to drink in the first place.

If you’re considering drinking something like that, maybe it’s time you reconsider and pick up some new coffee gear.

Be sure to read our many reviews on coffee and its wares, and take a chance on some coffee education.

Brian Mounts

Head blogger, editor, and owner of "Top Off My Coffee", a website that has been educating readers about coffee brewing techniques and equipment since 2012.

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