Old spices aren't likely to kill you, but they probably won't give your food much flavor.

"People need to realize that if they buy these big jars of spices on sale, they have probably been sitting in a warehouse and then on the store shelf for six months already," said Carl Weyant, chef and owner of the Sun & Moon Cafe in Emigration Canyon. "And a lot of folks will store them in a hot area, maybe by the stove, and the heat affects the life of herbs and spices." Weyant recently cleared out a friend's kitchen of old herbs and spices.

It's not that they taste rancid or bad, but "they just lose their flavor profile. A lot of times you can tell by just smelling them that you're wasting your time using them," Weyant said.

The McCormick spice company has a "Date Code Decoder" on McCormick.com to help cooks decipher the "use by" numbers on old spice containers. Newer products have a "best by" date on it. Other clues: Except for black pepper, any McCormick spices in rectangular tins are at least 15 years old. If you see "Baltimore, MD" on a jar label, those spices are at least 15 years old, too.

Spice Islands Trading Co., the maker of high-quality spices and extracts, recently launched an online Register Your Spice program on Spiceislands.com, to help cooks track the age of their herbs and spices. It also gives tips for using them up while they're still fresh.

"All too often someone buys a spice for a special recipe, uses it once, puts it in the spice cabinet and ultimately forgets about it," said Steve Gordon, Spice Islands brand manager.

As a bonus, those who register can receive a free Spice Art Calendar.

Besides date checking, McCormick offer these tips:

• Colors should be vibrant. If color has faded, chances are that the flavor has as well.

• Rub or crush the spice or herb in your hand to see if the aroma or flavors are weak.

Even if they're old, you don't necessarily need to toss them out, said Weyant.

"When I have spices without much life left in them, I will make a spice rub or marinade to use them up," he said. "You can mix them in with enough newer spices to give some flavor. But I wouldn't use them alone to season an expensive piece of protein."

Some tips for restocking herbs and spices:

• Buy in smaller jars. "Nobody really needs a pound of cumin at a time," Weyant said. "Even in restaurants, there could be spices sitting around for a year."

• Buy from reputable companies. "If you buy a better brand, it will typically be fresher and have better quality," Weyant said. "You may pay $3 more, but you might get another several months of use out of it."

• Whole spices, such as peppercorns, keep longer and taste fresh when ground.

• Recap the lids tightly after using, and keep them away from heat, moisture and direct sunlight.

• To minimize moisture and caking, use a dry measuring spoon (not a wet spoon or finger), and avoid sprinkling spices directly into a steaming pot.

Shelf life of seasonings

Seasoning blends ... 1-2 years

Herbs ... 1-3 years

Ground spices ... 2-3 years

Whole spices ... 3-4 years

Extracts ... 4 years

(except pure vanilla)

Pure vanilla ... Indefinitely

Source: McCormick & Co. Ltd.

E-mail: vphillips@desnews.com