What Food Expiration Dates Mean

food expiration dates

Tons of food goes to waste each year thanks to confusing food expiration dates.  Since there is no nation-wide standard for dating, each state gets to decide what phrase they want to use and what it means.

No one wants to get sick, but it turns out these dates are more for the convenience of the manufacturer or grocer rather than the consumer.  Here’s a guide to what they mean and how much time you really have for fresh, canned or packaged foods.

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Use By/Best Before Date

Usually on canned or packaged food, it indicates the date that the food reaches its peak taste and nutritional value.  The food is still likely safe to eat after this date.  Color may be affected as well as crispiness or other textures.  Some things to watch out for:

Foods with oils in the ingredients.  When you notice a rancid odor, it’s time to toss.  Keep an eye on rice, grains, peanut butter, some breads, soft cookies, crackers and snacks. Air tight containers at room temperature help, but for the longest shelf-life, freeze or refrigerate when possible.

Cans with swollen tops.  Most canned foods can last over a year (acidic foods like tomatoes) up to 5 years with proper storage.  Just watch for a bulging can top which means the food inside is probably not safe to eat.  If a can pops when opening, it’s usually a sign that you’re breaking the vacuum.  But if you’ve opened the same type of can before without it popping, toss it.

Sell By Date

This is a store term most often seen on meats, dairy products, eggs and sometimes on produce to alert the store to rotate the food.  Often you’ll find items about to be pulled from the shelf at a deep discount.  These can be a great value.  For dairy products, you’ve probably got about a week left until it spoils or starts to mold. Meats should be used or frozen that day.

One exception is eggs which can last for weeks after the date on the carton.  To check to see if an egg is still good, place it in a bowl of water.  It’s okay if it stays at the bottom either on its side or upright.  But if it rises to the top, don’t use it.

Other dates you might see:
Pack date – date the food was canned/packaged.  Useful on canned goods if there is no expiration date.
Born on date – usually on beers it’s the date it was manufactured.  Note that beers are best drunk within 3 months of this date and may taste stale tasting after that.
Guaranteed fresh date – mainly on baked goods, after this date, it’s still edible but not as tasty.

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by on January 13th, 2014