Is Your Fridge as Clean as You Think?

James Logie
Photo by Debby Hudson on Unsplash

Is your fridge running?

As great as that phone prank joke was when we were 9, it’s something you should actually consider.

Unlike other appliances that just sit there, your refrigerator is an active device that is constantly running and requires proper attention. They are designed to be used a certain way, and this gets easily overlooked.

It doesn’t require constant surveillance, but your fridge actually needs some maintenance. Just like you wouldn't let your car run for too long without an oil change, there are things you can do to make sure your fridge runs optimally — and keeps you healthy.

A Relatively Modern Invention

The fridge itself is a pretty recent creation. The concept of artificial refrigeration actually goes back to the mid-1700s. It would be nearly 100 years before they created early refrigeration units.

These early units completely changed the world of food consumption. Before that, we just had to consume our food before it spoiled. Being able to keep things cold was a total game-changer.

But they were still for commercial use. It wouldn’t be until 1913 that they created the first refrigerators for home use. To say having one was a luxury was an understatement — and it would still be decades until they became a regular part of everyone’s life.

Then, combination units with freezers were introduced. The whole concept of having this technology in our homes completely changed the way we consumed food.

As the 1950s rolled around, everyone had a fridge. And this is the era when the frozen TV dinner became a staple of everyday life. What was once considered a luxury item was now being consumed on a nightly basis.

These giant “cold boxes” were leading to less wastage and giving us an amount of convenience we had never experienced before.

How Does Your Fridge Actually Work?

Don’t think of your fridge as a big box of cold, but as a cold air disruption center.

It accomplishes this via the compressor. The compressor constricts refrigerant vapor, which creates pressure. This pressure then pushes it into those big coils you see on the back of your fridge.

This vapor is hot and when it meets the cool temperature of the room, it turns into a liquid. As this liquid flows through the coils of your fridge and freezer, it cools down.

So, your fridge isn’t as much a “cold maker” as it is a “heat remover.” That liquid refrigerant takes heat away by absorbing it. This leaves your fridge cool.

Now, that refrigerant can turn back into a vapor. It heads back to the compressor and the entire cycle begins again.

This cycle of vapor to liquid and heat to cold is the reason you need to pay attention to some things if you want to keep your fridge — and yourself — as healthy as possible.

The Specific Set-Up of Your Fridge

The design of the fridge is to circulate air throughout it. The air doesn’t just sit there, but movies in a figure-8 pattern.

This design allows for specific areas to be cooler than others. The temperature actually has some variation to it — even though it's contained in a giant rectangle.

The coldest parts of your fridge are up high and near the back. This is the spot you want to put items that need colder temperatures. If you consume things like milk and dairy, you’ll want to keep them up top and near the back of the fridge. This will keep them as fresh as possible and lead to less spoilage.

If you wondered why the vegetable drawers are kept down low, it’s because of this cold-air circulation. Where up high and to the back are the coldest parts, lower down, and to the front are warmer.

This is why the vegetable drawers, or crispers, are kept there. Fruit and veg need to be kept cold, but not too cold. When veg is too cold, it may burn.

This is why you see fresh produce kept out in the open in supermarkets. They are still in units, but ones that are slightly cool. They are also not contained, so the produce gets exposure to warmer air.

In grocery stores, they obviously keep the dairy products in full refrigeration units. For foods that need to be kept cool; all cold is not created equal, and your fridge helps you with this.

Don’t Keep Things too Full

Now that you can see how the air distribution works, it’s important to not block it. And this is what can happen if you keep your fridge too packed.

An overly full fridge is an amazing problem to have, but it may cause some issues with the air circulation — and this may cause some spoilage issues.

Fridges aren’t designed to be packed to the gills. That cold air needs to flow throughout it. That overly full fridge disrupts the cold airflow and can lead to warm spots.

Those warm spots may not be preserving your food as much as you think. If you notice some of your items spoiling before their “best by date,” it may be because things are too full and you’ve created warm spots.

I used to buy so much each time I grocery shopped that my fridge was too packed. I wondered why I kept throwing out a lot of food. I do think it was because of these warm spots.

Once I kept it less full and spread it out evenly, I noticed there was less wastage.

Our Atrocious Wastage

This all comes down to wastage. We throw out a horrific amount of food each year.

I sometimes feel that when I buy things like spinach or raspberries, I may as well just throw them right in the trash on the way out of the store and cut out the middleman.

Fresh whole foods are amazing for our health, but they come with one enormous problem. They go bad so quickly. Some of this may be because of our fridges, and some of it is from buying too much.

In either case, food wastage is costing you a lot of time and money. The average household is wasting 30–40% of their food. If you are like the average household, this means you may throw out anywhere from 200 to 250 pounds of food per year.

And this is hurting us where it counts. Data from the US Department of Agriculture’s National Household Food Acquisition and Purchase Survey found this yearly food wastage is costing us nearly $2,000 every year.

What could you do with an extra two grand per year?

This may be because we don’t eat our food in time, or it’s spoiling too quickly and we don’t get the chance. This is why you want to stay on top of your “fridge hygiene.”

Limiting “Door Time”

How many times a day do you open your fridge? It’s a lot more than you realize. And how often do you find yourself standing in front of the fridge with the door open, staring blankly, wondering what the hell to eat?

An overly full fridge leads to warm spots, and the same thing can happen with opening the door too often — and for too long.

Since those warm spots can lead to wastage, it’s a good idea to limit that door open time. The first thing you can do is keep items that can spoil quickly off of the door shelves.

Since the door is constantly opened and closed, the items on the door get the first exposure to the warm air of the room. And they get constant exposure throughout the day.

Again, if you consume dairy, and things similar that spoil quickly; it’s a good idea not to keep it on the door.

The door also gets swung wide open and basically becomes part of the warm kitchen.

Keep your door open for as brief as possible. Not only will this lead to less wastage, but also saves energy. The door doesn’t need to be fully swung open, either.

If you need to stand there with the door open for three minutes deciding if you should eat that three-week-old macaroni salad, that’s probably a hard no.

Keep it Clean

Not only is spoiled food wasted, but it may also contaminate other food in your fridge.

It sucks to have to throw something out, but it’s better to get it over with than risk more food going down with it.

As good as that cold air distribution is, it’s not your best friend when you have moldy or rotting food in your fridge. That figure-8 air flow pattern could distribute mold to all parts of the fridge.

Checking your items regularly for signs of spoilage will help keep the rest of your items — and yourself — as healthy as possible. Rotting food in one part of the fridge may cause rotting in a whole other part of it.

The same thing goes for spilled residue. I’ve had sticky spills that had been in my fridge as far back as when Kelly and Zack first started dating. After a while, those spills seem to just become part of the fridge.

Getting those cleaned up as quickly as possible will help prevent them from possibly spreading around.

The vegetable drawers are the worst culprit of this. Giving the whole drawer a full clean from time to time helps to prevent it from turning into a brown slimy mess — like the bottom of mine has often become.

Putting new produce into these drawers that are full of remnants of vegetables past is just asking for them to get spoiled.

Giving your entire fridge a full clean every now and then will help to keep it as pristine as possible. Remember: a dirty fridge leads to dirty food.

Wrapping it Up

You probably didn’t think a fridge was that complicated. Just plug it in and let it do its thing. But you can now see how there is a specific design to these appliances. And they require maintenance from time to time.

You don’t have to overdo this maintenance, but it’s important to check-in to make sure it’s running as efficiently as possible and keeping the food you eat as safe as possible.

Those few key tips include:

  • Not keeping it too full
  • Keep items spread out as much as possible
  • Keep the most perishable items up high and near the back
  • Keep the door open as little as possible to prevent warm air coming in
  • Throw away rotting food as soon as you can
  • Clean up spills and residue that may contaminate other items

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Personal trainer, podcaster, Amazon best-selling author. Writing about some health, a little marketing, and a whole lot of 1980s.


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