How Understanding Expiration Dates Can Help You Reduce Food Waste

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"Have you ever found expiration dates to be confusing? I sure have. Read on to learn more about this ambiguous labeling and how it can help you reduce food waste!"

Have you ever found yourself staring at the “sell-by” date on your food, wondering what it truly means? If it’s a day past, do you throw it out? If it smells fine, do you keep it? 

According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), about 20 percent of consumer food waste results from confusing labeling. That’s right: This internal debate we all have ends with tossing an immense amount of perfectly good food into the landfill where it releases methane, an extremely potent greenhouse gas. 

It doesn’t always have to be that way, though. We spoke with Amy Shapiro, MS, RD, CDN, founder of Real Nutrition in New York City, to get some clarity on exactly what these date labels mean and how we should be using them to decide what gets tossed (composted, if possible!) and what gets consumed.

What Is Food Product Dating?

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First things first: The technical name for those “expiration dates” is “food product dating”—at least according to the USDA. Notice there’s no mention of expiration, because these dates don’t actually indicate when food is no longer fit to consume.

“This date is provided by the manufacturer to tell stores or consumers when the product is at its peak,” says Shapiro. “This doesn’t mean it will be rancid a day or a week afterward.”

One very important exception is baby formula. Dating is required for infant formula and does indicate when it’s no longer safe to consume. Other than that, the dates on food packaging are essentially recommendations. This leaves a lot of grey area when it comes to determining if food is past its prime or not, so let’s dig in.

How to Interpret Different Types of Food Date Labels

In the United States, you’re likely to find 1 of 3 important dates on your packaged foods: sell by, use by, or best if used by. Though they all sound similar, their meanings are quite different

What does a “use by” date indicate?

According to Shapiro, “a use by date is the last day the product should be used by.” Notice how she says should? Not has to? Food with a use by date is okay for consumption unless it’s showing signs of spoilage. 

To look for such signs, Shapiro recommends using your senses. “Does it taste different than usual, is it moldy, does it have a different or unexpected texture, does it smell off?” she says. “These are all fair warning signs to look for in regards to freshness.”

What does a “sell by” date indicate?

“The ‘sell by’ date is to let the store or seller know the last day that it should be on the shelf,” says Shapiro. This isn’t a safety date and doesn’t mean you can’t consume the item after this date. According to the USDA, you can continue to use the product past this date unless it’s beginning to spoil.

“It’s okay to consume food after its expiration date,” says Shapiro. “Especially if it’s stored right and if it’s a dry/pantry ingredient, it may not really change at all.”

What does a ‘best if used by’ date indicate?

“‘Best if used by’ means this is the best time for taste, flavor, and quality of the product,” says Shapiro. Again, this is an educated guess provided by the manufacturers, so it’s best to simply use your common sense when determining if the food is safe for consumption.

“I think people need to train their nose and taste to determine when a food is expired,” Shapiro says. “Especially these days where there’s so much food waste and so many people hungry.”

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Are There Any Foods You Shouldn’t Be Eating Past the Expiration Date?

“When foods are stored correctly, even raw meat can go one or two days past its expiration date,” says Shapiro. “The only item I would recommend absolutely not deferring from the date would be baby formula.”

As Shapiro mentions, storing your food correctly is crucial for its longevity—especially when it comes to meat. So be sure to follow the FDA guidelines. Ultimately, when it comes to food date labels, use them as a guideline and rely on your senses—including your common sense to make the final decision.

Have you ever found expiration dates to be confusing? I sure have. Read on to learn more about this ambiguous labeling and how it can help you reduce food waste!

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