Jan 25, 2018

Avoiding Food Waste by Understanding Food Expiration Labels

What Food Expiration Dates Really Mean
Americans waste a lot of food. According to Forbes, enough to fill the Rose Bowl every day - a total of 30 - 40% of all our food. Even worse, much of that food is perfectly edible. And one of the biggest reasons we waste food is our great fear of food poisioning.

While it's obviously smart for consumers to use caution when eating food that could make them ill, we can prevent a lot of food waste simply by understanding the types of "expiration labels" found on food products. For example, the following labels tell consumers nothing about a food's safety:

"Sell by" 
"Best if Used By" 
"Best By"  
"Guaranteed Fresh By"

Instead, each of these labels indicates that after the printed date, the product may not be as fresh - still safe to eat, mind you, but not of as high in quality.

Canned foods often have a “Pack” date; this is designed for the manufacturer's use and has nothing to do with either safety or quality.

Only foods withExpires On” or “Expires By” dates are helpful in indicating safety. If something is eaten after the indicated date, it could potentially cause food poisoning. However, if the product is frozen before the expiration date, it may be consumed much later than the date indicated.

General Guidelines

Cook or freeze meat and seafood within 2 days of purchase. 

The USDA says eggs are safe for up to 5 weeks after their expiration date, if kept in their original box in a cool refrigerator. However, there is a simple test to determine whether eggs are safe to eat: Place them in a cup of water and see if they float. (See complete instructions here.)

If kept unopened, butter can last for months. But if you're not going to use it right away, it's a great idea to freeze it.

Milk is usually safe up to one week after the “sell by” date. If milk is reaching its expiration date and you won't be able to use it before it goes bad, freeze it.






If kept unopened, hard cheeses last for at least 4 weeks. Over time, they may taste more sharp. If cheese develops mold, cut off all the affected part and eat the rest. Grated cheese may be stored in the freezer and used for cooking. (Freezing changes the texture of cheese, so you wouldn't want to eat previously frozen cheese in, say, a sandwich.)

If you have vegetables that tend to go bad before you use them, consider whether they freeze well. For example, I used to have trouble with bell peppers and onions going bad. Now, I chop them up the day of grocery shopping (or the day after) and pop them into the freeze. Added bonus: This makes cooking meals faster! Not sure how to freeze veggies? Visit AllRecipes for tips.

Another option for vegetables or fruits that are about to go bad is to dehydrate them. Dehydration is easy and cost effective; learn how here.

Experts say baking powder should be replaced around every 6 months, but I find mine lasts much longer. To test if it needs replacing, mix 1 teaspoon of baking powder with ½ cup of hot water. It should bubble instantly. The same thing goes for baking soda; test it by dropping ¼ teaspoon into 2 teaspoons of vinegar. It should bubble right away.

Commercially canned foods often last up to 5 years, and home canned foods last virtually forever, as long as they remain sealed. The nutrients in the food will very gradually diminish. However, if canned goods are kept at a high or low temperatures, they will spoil rapidly. Keep them at 50 - 70 degrees F. Rust on cans or lids may indicate air can get to the food, which in turn means the food could be spoiled. Commercially canned high acid foods, like tomatoes or citrus, are more likely to spoil than low acid foods like canned pears. Toss any cans or jars that are bulging. Watch the video below for more tips on discerning whether home canned food is still safe to eat.



Still not sure about a food's expiration date? Check out EatByDate.com.


DISCLAIMER: This article is designed to offer friendly advice. I am not a doctor or scientist, nor an expert on foodborne illness. Please use common sense before eating anything and always err on the side of caution. I cannot be held liable if you eat a food mentioned in this article and become ill. Isn't it sad that I have to post a disclaimer?

A version of this post originally appeared in October of 2009.

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