Sugar is one of those staples you always want to have because it’s used in almost everything. However, since it has an expiration date, people often wonder if it actually goes bad. The good news is that sugar lasts indefinitely with proper storage.
Almost all sugars come with a “best if used by” date. However, according to the USDA, best-by dates have absolutely nothing to do with food safety and only pertain to the best flavor or quality of the product.
Does Sugar Go Bad?
While sugar doesn’t go bad, there are a few things that can ruin your sugar supply when it’s not stored properly:
- Bad or stale smells
There are a variety of pests and insects that can invade your sugar when left in its original packaging. These unwanted nuisances gain access through small openings wherever your package has been unsealed.
This is why it’s always best to store your dried goods in airtight containers. These are the most common bugs and insects attracted to sugar:
- Sawtoothed grain beetles
- Indian meal moth
- Sugar mites
While it won’t physically harm you to consume these insects, most of us wouldn’t want to. So, you should probably toss your sugar out if it’s infested with these creepy crawlers.
To keep your sugar pest-free, follow our guide on how to properly store your sugar.
It’s not likely that your sugar will develop mold unless you expose it to moisture. Since sugar generally inhibits mold growth, it’s usually the container itself that develops the mold.
You shouldn’t store your sugar in the refrigerator or freezer because the buildup of condensation can contribute to mold growth.
Regardless of the type, sugar can absorb odor molecules from its surroundings, which can alter its flavor. This is another reason to store your sugar in airtight containers.
Bad odors won’t make your sugar harmful, but they can certainly make your sugar a little less desirable.
The biggest threat to sugar quality is moisture. As sugar absorbs moisture, it begins to clump and harden, which is more of an inconvenience than a health risk.
This is where your use-by dates act as a useful guide letting you know how long your sugar retains its best quality and flavor.
How to Resolve Moisture Issues
Should your sugar become like a brick, these hacks can help restore your sugar to its natural state and make it easier to work with:
- Microwave: Mist your sugar with water and microwave for five minutes. Then use a spoon or fork to mash the clumps.
- Food processor or coffee grinder: Fill your food processor or grinder halfway and process on light mode.
- Wet paper towel: Place your sugar in a jar with a moistened paper towel and leave overnight. Remove the paper towel the next morning and crush the sugar with a spoon or fork.
- Apple or bread method: Instead of a paper towel, place a few apple slices or a slice of bread on top of your sugar. I’ve used this hack on multiple occasions, and it works great.
- Mortar and pestle: Place hardened sugar in mortar and spritz with water. Place a clean dishcloth over the sugar, and use a pestle to crush it.
Types of Sugar and Their Shelf Lives
Even if your sugar is not preserved in airtight containers, it can still maintain its best qualities for an extended period. Here’s a guide to how long you can expect different types of sugar to last once opened when not stored properly.
White Granulated Sugar
White granulated sugar has many common uses, from sweetening drinks and baking to gourmet sauces. Traditional packaging gives granulated sugar a three-year window for best quality according to its use-by date.
Also known as confectioners’ sugar, powdered sugar is predominantly used in icings, whipping cream, and frostings.
Powdered sugar is actually nothing more than white granulated sugar ground into a fine powder and then sifted. It’s then mixed with 3% cornstarch to prevent caking and clumping. You can even make your own by blending one cup of white sugar with one tablespoon of cornstarch.
Powdered sugar has a two-year window for best quality. However, since neither sugar nor cornstarch goes bad, powdered sugar can also last indefinitely when stored properly.
I currently have a bag of powdered sugar in my cupboard that’s four years past its use-by date, and it looks and tastes fine.
Baker’s Sugar and Sander’s Sugar
Mainly used for sugaring donuts and cookies or creating a fine crumb texture, baker’s sugar has finer sugar crystals than fruit sugar.
Typically available in a rainbow of colors, sander’s sugar can be fine or coarse and is traditionally used to give a sparkling appearance.
Both have a best-by date of two years.
Brown sugars contain substantially more moisture when compared to white sugar, which is why they help your baked goods remain moist and chewy. Brown sugar is usually made by either combining white sugar and molasses or boiling brown sugar syrup.
Light-brown sugar is best suited for sauces and some baked goods. Because dark-brown sugar is deeper in color and stronger in flavor, it is better suited for bread, beans, barbecue, and other rich and full-flavored foods.
Brown sugar retains its best-quality state for two years.
Granulated Brown Sugar
Often used in cereals and oatmeals, granulated brown sugar is brown sugar with moisture removed for a more powdery consistency. Because it is much drier than typical brown sugar, it doesn’t clump like dark- and light-brown sugar. It can last anywhere from 6–18 months.
Turbinado cane sugar, sometimes called demerara sugar or raw cane sugar, has been minimally processed to retain its natural molasses.
It has a mild brown sugar flavor and much larger crystals than traditional white or brown sugar. It’s often used to garnish the top of baked goods.
The last bag of turbinado sugar I purchased had a use-by date that was four years out.
Sometimes called Barbados sugar, muscovado sugar is an unrefined cane sugar that has not had its molasses removed. It is very dark and sticky, and it has a strong molasses flavor.
Depending on the temperature control, muscovado’s best-by date can be anywhere from 12–48 months from the time of purchase.
Just remember that ultimately, no sugar ever “goes bad,” and it all has an indefinite shelf life by simply storing it in airtight containers.