Vacuum sealing is a great way to save space and increase the shelf life of most food. However, it’s far from perfect and comes with its set of disadvantages.
- Needs special bags
- Not all bags are reusable
- Anaerobic bacteria will thrive
- Can’t vacuum seal delicate food
- Some food will still spoil even if vacuum sealed
What is Vacuum Sealing?
Vacuum sealing or vacuum packing is a method of storing food that involves removing air from a food package, before sealing it. It can be done automatically using a vacuum sealer machine, or manually using specialized bags with a one-way valve and a manual suction pump for removing air.
It’s often used for storing food, but can also be used for storing clothes, blankets, and sheets, or other items that will benefit from being kept in an oxygen-free environment like metal fittings, screws, and tools.
However, it’s not a silver bullet for storing food. Along with its benefits comes some disadvantages that should be taken into mind when using it.
Needs Special Bags
Manual and automatic vacuum sealers need special bags that are a little thicker and sturdier than regular plastic bags. Using plastic bags that are not rated for vacuum sealing can still let some air in since these are often semi-permeable to gases. Thus, it’s not guaranteed that the shelf-life of food that’s vacuum packed using a regular plastic bag will be extended.
Not All Vacuum Sealed Bags are Reusable
There are mainly 3 types of available vacuum-sealed storage bags: non-reusable bags, resealable but non-reusable bags, and reusable and resealable bags.
- Non-Reusable Bags: These bags are the most commonly available on the market. These are single-use bags that don’t have a zipper closure mechanism similar to Ziploc bags.
- Resealable, Non-Reusable Bags: These are still single-use bags, but have a zipper mechanism incorporated in their design.
- Semi-Reusable, Resealable Bags: Bags like this can be used with a manual air-removing pump. They have a zipper closure mechanism and a one-way valve for removing air. Some, more expensive vacuum sealing machines can be used with this bag.
However, reusable bags don’t last long. Their one-way valve and the zipper mechanism are weak points that will eventually break.
Good quality vacuum sealers are expensive. Entry-level vacuum sealers are priced at around $80. The really good ones that are commercial grade are priced north of $350. There are cheaper vacuum sealers that are available on the market but only work with smaller bags.
Additionally, since the bags are often single-use only or semi-reusable, there’s a need to keep buying vacuum-rated bags.
Anaerobic Bacteria Will Thrive
Most bacteria that cause spoilage require oxygen and moisture to survive and replicate. A common misconception is that vacuum sealing food is a sure way to kill bacteria and keep food safe. However, some bacteria thrive in low oxygen environments and are known as anaerobic bacteria. One example is the Clostridium botulinum which produces toxins that causes food poisoning, paralysis, and on most occasions, death.
Can’t Vacuum Seal Delicate Food
Soft and spongy food like soft crusted bread, cakes, and meringues cannot withstand being vacuum sealed. Since vacuum sealing removes air from inside a container and anything in it, the air pockets in between these pastries are emptied out, collapsing the structure of the food. Furthermore, the vacuum bag compresses and crushes them, ruining their texture.
Most leafy vegetables like lettuces are also a poor candidate for vacuum sealing. On top of crushing them, the bruising caused by it hastens the decomposition of the leafy greens.
Some Food Still Spoils
Fresh fruits and vegetables that naturally release a ripening gas called ethylene will continue to ripen and ultimately spoil even if vacuum sealed. Some examples are bananas, apples, apricots, peaches, and more. The ethylene gas builds up inside the vacuum bag, which causes rapid ripening of the fruit.
Vegetables in the Brassicaceae family like broccoli, cauliflower, and brussels sprouts will also spoil faster when vacuum sealed. Other vegetables like onions and garlic can degrade the plastic over time, compromising the integrity of the vacuum bag.
Moreover, vacuum sealing fresh produce receives little benefit from the process. The natural enzymes in plants and vegetables will eventually break them down, turning fresh produce into a mushy mess.
How to Address Some of the Disadvantages
Despite the mentioned disadvantages, vacuum sealing is still a handy way to prolong the shelf life of food and ingredients. There are a couple of measures that can be done to address its drawbacks.
- Buy vacuum storage bags in bulk or when on sale: Vacuum storage bags do not expire. They can be stored in a dry area away from the sun. These storage bags are much cheaper when bought in bulk and should be bought when on sale for further savings.
- Cook fruits and vegetables before vacuum sealing: Cooked fruits and vegetables will stop emitting ethylene gas. Fruits like bananas can be caramelized first before storing in vacuum packs. Vegetables on the other hand should be blanched before vacuum packing to deactivate the natural enzymes in them. Additionally, by washing off the dirt from root crops and mushrooms, and then cooking them well, the risk of getting botulism is reduced significantly.
Advantages of Vacuum Sealing
To form an informed decision on whether to vacuum seal food or not, we must also look at the advantages of vacuum sealing.
- Extends shelf life of most food, both cooked and raw: Vacuum sealing removes almost all the oxygen in the bag. Without oxygen, aerobic bacteria (oxygen loving) that causes spoilage will die off after some time. Oxygen also contributes to the degradation of the quality of most food. By removing oxygen, it will take a very long time for most ingredients to become stale.
- Saves space: Vacuum-sealed food has a smaller profile and takes up less space compared to storing food in rigid containers. For preppers, this means more supplies can be stored in the freezer, refrigerator or the pantry.
- Prevents dehydration and freezer burn: Vacuum sealing creates a barrier that prevents the escape of moisture from the food. Frozen food that’s exposed to oxygen and the humid freezer environment becomes extremely dry. It changes the food’s texture and degrades its quality. Fish and meat are the ones that benefit most from vacuum sealing before being frozen. On the other hand, refrigerated and non-refrigerated food will also get dehydrated over time.
Despite the various disadvantages of vacuum sealing food, the advantages generally outweigh them. Moreover, there are ways to minimize and address these disadvantages. In the end, vacuum sealing extends the shelf life of food and preserves its quality so it should be used whenever appropriate.