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November 27, 2019

How Expiration Dates Work (And How They Don't)

Have you ever reached into the fridge and pulled out a carton of milk, checked the expiration date, and after realizing the date has passed, dump it down the drain? Have you also taken the extra step to smell the milk, think it smells fine, but decide to throw it away instead “just to be safe”? 

We have all experienced worry about the expiration dates on our food products. We put a lot of faith in the company that is selling the product to keep our best health in mind, even when the perishable item looks, smells, or tastes just fine. We often have a nagging thought that somehow if the expiration date has passed, it is still bad or unhealthy for us to eat. 

Why do we trust the date stamped on the package more than we trust our own senses? 

How Food Expiration Dates Work

What are food expiration dates? 

Expiration dates determine when a food should be eaten or used, however there is different terminology around the dates actually printed on food packaging which can be confusing (more on that below). 

Unfortunately, there isn’t a lot of regulation or strong definitions surrounding the proper use of expiration dates on food products. Although the FDA and USDA have power over the regulation of products misbranding or mislabeling themselves, only dating on infant formula is federally regulated with food dating. 

How can expiration dates be misleading? 

“Sell By” date.
This date is what tells the store how long the product should be displayed for sale. It is more of a way for the company selling the product to communicate to the grocery store when they should pull the item from the shelf, not necessarily whether or not it is good to eat anymore. 

“Best if Used By” date.
This date determines when the product will taste the best, or have the best quality. It is more of a suggestion of when to use the product by, not a warning of spoilage.  

“Guaranteed Fresh” date.
Mostly in reference to items in the bakery aisle, this date means that the items will not be of their peak freshness after the stamped date. 

“Use By” date.
This date is set by the manufacturer of the product, and is a recommendation as to when you should use the product while it is still within its best-quality window. 

Do food expiration dates matter? 

Well, yes and no. Really, the best way to think of the dates on food packaging is as a suggestion, not a rule. Use your best judgement, and use your senses to determine if something is still fresh. If you’re still unsure, ask for a second opinion from a loved one. When in doubt, visit the resources at the bottom of this post for more information.

Why should I care about expiration dates? 

Over 90% of Americans throw away food that is still okay to eat because of expiration dates. On top of that, 40% of our food supply in the U.S. is tossed out every year (sometimes not even opened!) because of the dates printed on the labels. 

If you care about sustainability and about reducing food waste, changing your mindset around expiration dates is important in making less of an impact on the planet. 

The bottom line about expiration dates: 

Instead of blindly following expiration dates, use your senses to determine if a product is truly bad. Look to see if there is mold or discoloration on the item, smell to determine foulness, and even give it a taste. Trust that your senses know better than the company guessing when that food item is going to expire! 

[Credit: Lawrence, Star. “Do Food Expiration Dates Really Matter?” Web MD.]
[Credit: Sifferlin, Alexandra. “Is Your Food Expired? Don’t Be So Quick to Toss It.” Time.]

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