Spring clean your pantry: Toss this, keep that

If the pantry shelves are home to a half-eaten bag of Halloween candy and spice jars that smells like dust, it's time for a little pantry spring cleaning. Even if you keep a well-edited kitchen, it's good to survey what's lurking on those shelves. Here's a guide to what needs to find a new home in the trash can and what can stay.

Toss It: Trans Fats

Sometimes you want to geek out and know the exact reason why something is bad for you, so here's the deal with trans fats: they are made in an industrial process by adding hydrogen to vegetable oils in order to extend the shelf life of processed foods you might have in your pantry. Companies love them because they're cheap and easy. You don't need them, though, because they raise your "bad" (LDL) cholesterol and lower your "good" (HDL) cholesterol, increasing your risk of developing heart disease. And did you know that's the number one killer of American women? Go ahead and toss anything in your pantry that lists partially hydrogenated oils in the ingredients and be mindful of it on ingredients lists on future grocery runs.

Keep It: Grains
If you've stored your all-purpose flour in an air-tight container in a cool, dry place, definitely hang on to it. Barley, bulgur, couscous, cornmeal, quinoa, pasta, and rice are all keepers, too. In fact, they are indispensable weapons in the battle to get dinner on the table fast. One exception to this rule is whole wheat flour. It has natural oils that make it spoil faster, so if you haven't been storing it in the refrigerator and it's more than several months old, best to start from fresh with a new bag.

Toss It: Expired Baking Staples
That box of baking soda in the fridge? It has an expiration date on it, after which the active properties that make baked goods rise and clean your counters naturally are less effective. Same with baking powder. If they've expired, spring for new baking soda and powder so you don't have any disappointing baking disasters. Nuts will also go rancid kept in the pantry, so toss those, buy what you need fresh, and keep them in the freezer to extend their life.

Keep It: Canned Goods
Those nights when you're even more time-pressed than usual, a couple cans of beans and tomatoes combined with a whole grain can make a healthy meal on the fly. Hang on to canned fish like salmon, sardines, anchovies, and flaked light tuna packed in water for a quick sandwich or fish cakes. Canned beans like chickpeas, black beans, and kidney beans should stay, as well as tomatoes in many of their canned forms: paste, diced, stewed, and sauce. Other canned vegetables aren't quite as ideal, as their texture can leave something to be desired and their nutritional content wanes over time. Better to stock fruits and veggies in the freezer that were picked and frozen at their peak.

Toss It: High Fructose Corn Syrup
High fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is a shelf-stable sweetener found in many of our pantry staples including soft drinks, juices, and processed foods. Some claim HCFS is partly responsible for the obesity epidemic, noting that it may promote weight gain by behaving in the body more like fat than glucose (the blood sugar in other sweet foods). Some evidence also suggests that fructose may disturb liver function, and unlike glucose, doesn't appear to trigger the switch that tells us we're full -- meaning we can eat a lot of HFCS in everything from salad dressings, bread, and ketchup without even knowing it. And we haven't even addressed the environmental effects of growing vast crops of corn that deplete the soil and require pesticides and fertilizer. Whether you buy that it's "all-natural" or not, a lot of evidence seems to point to tossing this out of your pantry.

Keep It: Healthy Oils
Because you probably cook with it every night, chances are your cooking oils are fresh enough to keep. Stored in a cool, dark place, olive oil will last several months. Light and heat are what will make this go rancid, so tuck it away in the pantry rather than leaving it in a clear bottle next to the stove.Neutral cooking oils like canola and vegetable oil have an even longer shelf life (but you should toss them if they're more than a year old). Move toasted sesame oil for Asian cooking into the fridge to keep it from going bad.

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