The Secret Shelf Life of Food: What Food Freshness Labels and Expiration Dates Really Mean

Did you know:

  • ​That dates on food aren't there for consumer safety?
  • That food can be sold after its expiration date?
  • That freshness dates are not required by law?
  • That freshness labels differ from state to state?
  • That the expiration date on food doesn't mean you automatically have to throw it out?

Welcome to the complex and confusing world of food freshness labeling. If you think the "expiration" dates on food are there to protect you, think again. They are there for entirely different reasons.

If you're throwing away food just because of a date on the package, you're probably throwing away too much food.

Best by? Use by? Sell by? Expiration Date? Those packaging codes that you have to decipher (and sometimes can't)? They all mean different things. But none of them are to protect consumers. So if you're throwing away food solely because of a date on the package, you're probably throwing away too much food.

landfill food freshness labels

Americans waste about 80 billion pounds of food a year, and most of it ends up in landfills.

If you don't want to read the whole article, use the Contents to jump to a topic:

Why Is Food Waste a Problem?

Food waste is a problem. A very big problem. Americans throw out a huge amount of food every year. About 80 billion pounds. Discarded food makes up the bulk of landfills, and its decomposition produces large amounts of methane and carbon dioxide that find their way up into the atmosphere.

This adds up to huge financial waste, too. Most American families throw out close to a third of the food they buy. A third. That means if you spend $4000 per year on groceries (a conservative estimate for a family of four), about $1300 goes straight into the garbage can.

Lots of people will look at the label, see that the freshness date or expiration date has passed, and toss food out without further inspection. In fact, according to OffTheGridNews.com, about 20% of food is thrown out because it's past its freshness date. 

But food freshness labels (what you would probably call the expiration date, even though it probably isn't) often don't mean what you think they do! So if you're tossing food because of the date on the package, you could be tossing perfectly good food.

On the other hand, if you teach yourself to understand freshness labels and also to use your own judgment, you'll go a long way towards reducing food waste, stretching your food budget, and even putting some extra cash in your pocket in the process.​

One easy way to waste less food is to understand food freshness labels, packaging codes, and expiration dates.
Take expiration dates with a grain of salt. That's just when manufacturers consider food freshest, but it's often good for longer.

​What Do Food Labels Mean?

First of all, let's make sense of all the different food freshness labels you can encounter on food packages. You have to understand what these mean if you want to be savvy about food purchasing, eating, and tossing.

The Term or Code:

What It Means:

Where You'll See It:

Use By

​Best By, Best Before, Best If Used By

​This is the last day that the manufacturer vouches for the product’s quality. The use by date is the date the manufacturers recommend to use the product for “peak quality” in the food. It won't hurt you to eat the food after the use by date, it just might not taste as good.

Shelf stable products: canned goods, mustard, ketchup, mayonnaise, etc.

Sell By

This is an expiration date for the sale of a product. If the Sell By Date is passed, grocers are supposed to remove it from store shelves. You should probably not purchase food if the Sell By date has passed (although it may still be perfectly good to eat). If you have food at home past this date, it may still be good, but you should eat it or freeze it within a couple of days.

Perishables: meat, fish and dairy.

Expiration Date, Expires On

This is the only label that means the product is regulated by law and cannot be sold or used past the date.

Infant formula.

Date Codes, Packing Codes

These appear as a series of letters and numbers. They are meant to help manufacturers track products and help grocers keep track of inventory. They are not an indicator of food safety, quality, or freshness.

Most packaged consumer goods
(including non-food items).

Take expiration dates with a grain of salt. That's just when manufacturers consider food freshest, but it's often good for longer.

(BusinessInsider.com)​

The 3 Main Causes of Foodborne Illness

According to the site MichiganFoodSafety.com, the three main causes of foodborne illness are:

  • Storing at improper temperatures (read about the food Danger Zone here)
  • Poor personal hygiene (always, always wash hands before handling food)
  • Cross-contamination​ (use different cutting boards for meat and vegetables, wash counter and hands carefully after handling raw meat, etc.).

Interestingly, none of these have anything to do with food spoilage or food being "old." You're far more likely to get sick from not washing your hands before making dinner than you are from using food past its Best By date.

Can you get sick from eating food past its prime? Always possible. But actual spoiled food is usually so obvious that you'll know enough not to eat it.

Otherwise, if the food is just "old," it's probably okay to eat, even if not quite as tasty as it was when you first bought it. 

How Do You Know When to Throw Food Out?

Now that you know those Best By dates on food aren't there to tell you whether a food is still good or not, and that spoiled food doesn't even make the top 3 in food-related illness, then the next question is obvious: How do you know when to throw food out?

moldy bread food freshness labels

Sometimes, it's easy to tell when food is bad...

Sometimes it's obvious: green fuzz covering the surface, or a putrid odor when you open the package makes it a no-brainer. 

But it's not always this straightforward. If you don't want to rely on the food freshness label date on the package, you have to use your senses and best judgment. And, in fact, you should use your senses regardless of the date on the package-- because if you've never had food spoil before that date, believe me, you're due! 

(By the way, this is a valuable life lesson: learn to rely on your own observations, judgment, common sense rather on the information given to you by "experts." You will live a happier, fuller, and more confident life.)

blue cheese food freshness labels

...and sometimes, not so much.

The more you practice judging food's edibility, the more you'll get a feel for it. Living in a two-person household, I've had to become extremely discerning about what's usable and what isn't or I'd be throwing out way too much food.

Once you get good at this, you'd be amazed at what you can salvage from the back of your fridge--food you used to throw out!

Aside from the food freshness label/expiration dates, there are two ways to tell if food is still good. You've probably been using these methods for most of your life without really thinking about it. They are your nose and your eyes.​

The Nose Knows​

​One of the first things you do to test food is to smell it. If it smells sour, moldy, or rotten, then it's no good--toss it. This is particularly true for dairy products and meat. 

person plugging nose food freshness labels

If food smells bad, throw it out.

Remember, though, there's a difference between being past its prime and being inedible. Food can smell not-quite-fresh without being dangerous to eat. If this is the case, you can use the food in a recipe that will hide the old flavor. For example, use meat in soups and stews and use dairy in baking. ​

Upshot: make sure the food smells truly rancid rather than just past its prime. On the other hand, if you're uncertain, by all means err on the side of caution and throw it out. ​

Mold and Slime Is Bad...But Just About Everything Else Is Okay

You're also going to ​look for signs of spoilage. Here are the two that matter most:

  • Mold. If you see any mold on food, do not try to salvage it. Throw it out. (The exception is hard foods, like certain hard cheeses. You can cut generously around the mold and use the food. But hard food only--never consume soft food with mold on it.)
  • Sliminess. If food feels like it has a slimy coating on it, throw it out. Do not try to salvage it, even if the slime is not accompanied by a sour smell. It's spoiled. This is common especially on meat--so if that lunch meat you found in the back of the fridge smells okay but has a weird texture, toss it.​

Sometimes mold and slime are obvious. But not always. Bread, for example, can harbor tiny mold spots that aren't easy to notice. 

As a general rule of thumb, if the food has been around for awhile, inspect before eating--even it it's not past its freshness date or expiration date (but especially if it is).

If food has been around for more than a couple of days, inspect before eating.
If you want to waste less food, you have to get comfortable with using old-but-not-spoiled food. Once you get good at this, you'll be amazed at all the delicious things you can make with food slightly past its prime.

Can You Save Food That's On the Verge of Going Bad?

The short answer is yes--if it isn't yet spoiled. If you have food that's close to its expiration date (Best By date) or past the date, or your senses are telling you it's not so fresh anymore but not yet spoiled, you have to act fast. You need to eat, cook or freeze the food in question. 

One of the best uses for food past its peak is in stocks and broths. Soft vegetables, old meat, and wilted herbs are all excellent for stock. And if you cook a lot, you can never have too much stock in the freezer.​

And, as mentioned above, one of the best ways to use up old food is to make it into soups, stews, and casseroles--any dish that has a lot of other flavors that can hide flavor of the not-so-fresh food. 

If you can't cook the food right away, toss it in the freezer, being sure to label it as "stew meat" or the like. ​

And if you really don't want to eat it but it shows no signs of spoilage, consider turning it into pet food or throwing it out in your yard for wild critters to eat. At least that way it goes to some use rather than ending up in a landfill.

mold-covered salami food freshness labels

Sometimes mold is actually part of the process of making food.

When to Buy Food Close to or Just Past Its Expiration Date

Generally, if food is still on your grocer's shelf, it's almost certainly still safe to eat, even if past its peak flavor. Modern packaging makes food last a surprisingly long time before spoilage sets in--but once open, it has to be used up quickly!

It isn't necessarily a good practice to routinely buy food close to or past its expiration date, if for no other reason than flavor. But there are times you may want to make an exception:

1. If the food is heavily discounted, and

2. If you're sure it's not spoiled, and

3. If you're going to use or freeze it immediately upon getting home from the grocery store...

...then go ahead and buy it.

When you open it, inspect it carefully to make absolutely sure it's not spoiled.

Use it "in something" (as discussed above). Older meat makes excellent homemade stock, so if you're looking to "stock" your freezer, discounted meat and old produce are both real finds.

Talk about turning trash into treasures!

homemade stock food freshness labels

If you're not making stock out of your meat and vegetable scraps, you should be!

The Freezer Is Your Friend

If you have some food "on the verge" and you can't cook it immediately, freeze it. "On the verge" can mean that it's starting to look and smell not so fresh, or it can mean its Best By or Expiration Date is fast approaching or recently passed. (Use your best judgment!)

If you've made enough dinner for another meal, freeze it (especially if your family scoffs at leftovers).

If you have herbs, fruit, cheese, milk, or even eggs that need to be used, throw 'em in the freezer. (Just don't freeze eggs in their shells.) I can't count how many half pints of buttermilk I've thrown out over the years before I knew you could freeze it. Well, no more! Into the freezer it goes!

Stock, soup, sauces, juices...if you're not going to use 'em up, freeze 'em.

You can even freeze bread and bread products (tortillas, flatbreads, pizza crusts, pie crust, etc.). In fact, bread products actually stay fresher in a freezer than in the fridge. (They also thaw out in just a few minutes, so they're easy to use right when you need them.)

And if you have bread that's dried out, freeze it until you're ready to do something with it (bread pudding, bread crumbs, or my personal favorite, croutons--and once made, all of these can be frozen, as well!) 

Make pesto with all that basil from your garden (or deal at the store) and freeze it for summery fresh pesto pasta all winter long.​

Turn apples and tomatoes into sauce before freezing for quick dinners and desserts. 

food freshness labels freezer

A well-stocked freezer is a thing of beauty.

You'd be amazed at what you can freeze. Not everything is going to thaw into its former perfect self, but you can always find ways to use it up. Use thawed eggs for baking, thawed cheese on pizzas and in casseroles, thawed fruit in smoothies, pies, and cobblers. Use thawed milk in your coffee, in baking, and maybe even for drinking (a lot of people do).​ 

There is a ton of information on the Internet about freezing food. Here's one good article about it, but if you google "freezing food," you will find tons of great resources.​

...Finally: I can't talk about freezing without putting in a plug for vacuum sealers, which are my personal favorite kitchen appliance. They can make frozen food last up to 5 times longer by sealing out air and almost completely eliminating freezer burn. In my opinion, they are almost as essential to a well-stocked kitchen as the freezer itself! For more info, check out my article Why Every Kitchen Needs a Vacuum Sealer.​

Do your food a favor and get a vacuum sealer! You will save so much money and food, you'll wish you'd done it ages ago.
VacMasterVP112SOpen

vacuum sealer is an excellent way to get the longest shelf life possible out of your food. No matter how much you spend, it will pay for itself within a year.

​Canned Foods--How Long Are They Good?

Most canned foods other infant formula have "Best By" dates--meaning that the food is usually still good after the date, just not at its peak flavor.

Most government agencies and food safety councils will say that canned food should be eaten within a year, and most canned food is labeled thusly. The truth, though, is that a lot of canned food remains edible for years past the expiration date/Best By date on the cans.

canned food freshness labels

Canned food is cheap, nutritious, and keeps for many years.

In fact, the only time you absolutely shouldn't eat canned food is if the can is bulging (a sign of the deadly botulism toxin), the can's exterior is rusted, or if the food is obviously rotten when you open it.

If you open an old can and the food looks and smells okay, then it probably is okay. There are actually cases of people eating decades-old canned foods that was not only safe, but tasted just like freshly canned food.

It's not necessarily a good practice to use canned goods that are long past their expiration date. But if you find a can in the back of your cupboard that's past its date but looks fine, it's probably safe to eat. In the absence of obvious signs of spoilage, canned food is some of the safest food you can eat--go figure!

Here a few guidelines for canned goods:​

  • ​Store in a dark, dry place away from heat sources, sunlight, and moisture.
  • Don't eat any food from cans with rust or other signs of deterioration on them.
  • Rotate cans: put new purchases in the back of the cupboard so you're sure to use up the old stock first. 
  • High-acidic foods (e.g., tomatoes and fruit) have a shorter shelf life than low acidic foods (e.g., meats and most vegetables). They'll still be good for years past the date on the can, but the high acid content can cause greater changes in flavor.

You can purchase lots of canned goods and canned good storage products online.

A Word About Produce

produce food freshness labels

Produce is so easy to waste--but if you're savvy, it's also easy to salvage.

Most produce doesn't come with a food freshness label or expiration date, yet produce is probably the largest food group that gets tossed. In many cases, correctly--after all, you can't eat slimy lettuce! (Although I have been known to cut brown spots off of cauliflower, carrots, and onions and use them--remember the "hard food" rule.)

So if the produce is rotting, by all means throw it out. However, if it has merely lost its firmness, or has a few bruises, or maybe even a brown spot or two, it's still safe to eat--although you should do so quickly. ​

You may not want to eat wilted produce plain, but you can find ways to use it:​

  • Use wilted veggies in soups and stews. Roast them. Wazz them up in a blender and add some stock to make a delicious vegetable soup.
  • Use wilted fruit in pies and smoothies. ​Or homemade ice cream. Or fruit sauces and compotes. Poach it with cinnamon and port wine and serve it over yogurt or ice cream. Yummmmm...

Throw anything that's rotting, slimy, or smells spoiled. But get creative with stuff that's just old and wilted!

Throw anything that's rotting, slimy, or smells spoiled. Get creative with produce that's just wilted!
reusable produce bags food freshness labels

Reusable produce bags are a planet-friendly way to help your produce last longer.

Tips to Waste Less Food

  • Don't overbuy perishable food. You may think you need salad fixings, a vegetable to steam, and several different fruits for healthy snacking, but do you? If you find that you're throwing out a lot of perishable food, step back and take stock. You're probably overbuying. Think about keeping canned and frozen fruits and veggies to take up the slack, and only buy what you think you'll use in a week. See How to Make a Grocery List for more info.
  • Store food properly. Improper storage accounts for a lot of food going bad before its freshness label/expiration date. 
  • Once again, make use of your freezer to salvage both fresh food and leftovers from the trash bin.
  • Keep a well-stocked pantry so you always have ingredients on hand to cook with your fresh foods. See Waste Less Food By Stocking Up for more info.
  • If in doubt, throw it out! But having said that, be brave about using food past its prime in creative ways. 

Conclusion

This is not a plea to eat spoiled, rotten food--spoiled food should be thrown out, no exceptions.

However, be discerning in how you decide whether or not food is spoiled. If you tend to trust those Best By dates on food freshness labels, or see the expiration date as written in stone, then chances are you're throwing too much out. You can find ways to use food that's past its peak but not yet spoiled. Doing so is a fun challenge that will save you money and increase your kitchen creativity.

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