May 25, 2017

Last Updated: June 17, 2021

  • Home
  • /
  • Blog
  • /
  • The Secret Shelf Life of Food: What Food Freshness Labels and Expiration Dates Really Mean

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

By trk

Last Updated: June 17, 2021

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.

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 doesn't necessarily mean you have to throw food out?
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.

Why Is Food Waste a Problem?


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

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, 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 actually isn't) often don't mean what you think they d. So if you're tossing food because of the date on the package, you could be tossing perfectly good food.

The upshot? Take expiration dates with a grain of salt. That's just when manufacturers consider food freshest. But the truth is that manufacturers tend to err on the side of caution, it's often (almost always) good for longer.

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.

back to top

What Do Food Labels Mean?

First, let's make sense of all the 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

The last day the manufacturer vouches for a product’s quality. It is the last date manufacturers recommend using the product for peak quality. You can eat food after this date, but it might not taste as good.

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

Sell By

The last date for the sale of a product. If the Sell By Date has passed, grocers are supposed to remove it from store shelves. You should not purchase food past the Sell By date (although it may still be perfectly good). If you have food at home past this date, it may still be good--use your senses to tell. But you should eat or freeze it ASAP. 

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


back to top

The 3 Main Causes of Food-borne Illness

The three main causes of food-borne illness are:

  • Storing at improper temperatures (read about the food Danger Zone here)
  • Poor personal hygiene (always, always wash hands before and after 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 dates or food spoilage. The science shows that you're 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? Of course. 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 when it was younger. 

back to top

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 safe to eat, 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 move past relying on food freshness labels, you have learn to use your senses and best judgment.

In fact, you should use your senses and judgment regardless of the date on the package-- because if you've never had food spoil before that date, you're due! 

(By the way, this is a valuable life lesson: learn to rely on your own observations, judgment, and common sense rather on the information of "experts.")

blue cheese food freshness labels

...and sometimes, not so much.

The more you practice judging food's edibility, the better you'll get at it. With practice,  knowing about what's usable and what isn't becomes second nature.

Once you get good at this, you'll be amazed at what you can salvage from the back of your fridge--food you may otherwise have thrown out.

Basically, there are two ways to tell if food is still good. You've probably been using these methods for most of your life without 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

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 food smells truly rancid rather than just old.

But having said that, if you're uncertain, by all means err on the side of caution and toss it. 

Trust Your Eyes: 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 eat the cheese--if it smells okay. 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 for meat--so if that lunch meat you found in the back of the fridge smells okay but looks shiny or 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, especially on the bottom (or whatever edge was face down).

As a general rule of thumb, if the food has been around for awhile, always 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 past its prime (but not spoiled).

back to top

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

The short answer is yes--but you have to act fast. If you have food that's close to or past its Best By/Use By date, or your senses are telling you it's not so fresh anymore but not yet spoiled, you need to eat, cook or freeze the food in question as soon as you can. 

One of the best uses for meats and vegetables past their 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.

Professional chefs, who hate to waste anything edible, know this and use this rule all the time. They'll throw all of the day's leftover veggies and scraps of meat into a vat of water to make a rich stock. 

You may not be able to drop everything to make stock, but all is not lost. If you can't use the food right away, toss it in the freezer, being sure to label it as "stock," "stew meat," or the like. (A date is a good idea, too, though it doesn't matter all that much if you're just using it for stock--freezer burnt food also works wonderfully for stock.)

Maybe you're really unsure and just can't bring yourself to eat the food. That's okay; it's always best to err on the side of caution. If you really don't want to eat it but it shows no overt signs of spoilage, consider turning it into pet food. At least that way it goes to some use rather than ending up in a landfill.

back to top

A Word About Mold

While mold can be dangerous, the truth is that in a lot of cases, it won't actually hurt you; it just tastes gross. 

In fact, some molds are essential to food-making, such as blue cheese and the mold shown here, on this fancy sausage:


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

No, we're not saying to ignore mold. If you see it on food it shouldn't be on, definitely toss it. But if you happen to ingest a little by accident, there's very little chance that it will hurt you. 

back to top

Should I Ever Buy Food Close to (or Just Past) Its Expiration Date?

Of course, most people think the answer to this question is always "no." But let's dig into this a little deeper.

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 opened, it has to be used up quickly.

It isn't necessarily a good practice to routinely buy food close to, much less 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. You have a plan to use or freeze it immediately, 

...then go ahead and buy it.

When you open it, inspect it carefully to make absolutely sure it's not spoiled. (You may want to save your receipt so you can return it should you find out it's bad.)

As we said above, older meat and veggies make excellent homemade stock, so if you're looking to "stock" your freezer, discounted meat and old produce are both real finds.

In fact, a lot of grocery stores have a section of discounted foods, especially produce. If yours does, it's a great habit to check it out every time you shop. You can find everything from wilted celery (great for soup and stock) to bruised apples (great for baking). 

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! Not only is it a great way to save money and get the most value out of your "old" food, it's much tastier than canned stock.

back to top

The Freezer Is Your Friend

We already talked about this, but it bears repeating: 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.

Or, if you've made enough dinner for another meal, freeze it. This way, you can thaw it out for an easy future dinner, and your family won't see it as leftovers. Win-win.

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.) Yes, you can freeze milk, cream, buttermilk, and cheese: when thawed they are best used as ingredients as they won't have the same texture as fresh, but they are absolutely okay to eat. 

Fruit and veggies need to be prepped before freezing, but it's pretty easy. Here's a great site that can tell you everything you need to know about freezing produce.

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 pretty quickly, so they're easy to use 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, croutons, panzanella...and once made, all of these can be frozen, as well). 

Make pesto with all that basil from your garden (or the great deal you found 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. Or, just slice and freeze to use in hundreds of different recipes. 

food freshness labels freezer

A well-stocked freezer is a thing of beauty.

You'll 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). 

Finally: We can't talk about freezing without putting in a plug for vacuum sealers. They can make frozen food last up to 5 times longer by sealing out air and almost completely eliminating freezer burn. They are almost as essential to a well-stocked kitchen as the freezer itself! For more info, check out our 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.

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.

back to top

Canned Foods: How Long Are They Good?

Most canned foods other than infant formula have "Best By" dates--meaning once again that the food is 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 accordingly. 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 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 almost certainly is okay. There are actually cases of people eating decades-old canned foods that was not only safe, but tasted as good as if it had just been put up.

No, 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, and the food inside looks and smells fine when you open it, it's almost certainly safe to eat.

In fact, in the absence of obvious signs of spoilage, canned food is some of the safest food you can eat. Yes; even if it's past its prime. 

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 can 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.

back to top

About Produce


Produce doesn't usually come with a food freshness label, yet produce is probably the largest food group that gets tossed. In many cases, correctly--after all, you can't eat slimy lettuce! (Although you can cut brown spots off of cauliflower, broccoli, carrots, and other "hard" veggies and use the remaining pieces, especially if for stock or soup.)

So if the produce is rotten, by all means throw it out. However, if it has merely lost its turgidity (e.g., is soft or limp), has a few bruises, or maybe some brown spots, it's still safe to eat--although you should do so quickly. 

You may not want to eat wilted produce plain, but you can still 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. Cook it down into syrup. Juice it.

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

back to top

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, really? 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--but not spoiled--in creative ways. 

back to top

Final Thoughts

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

However, 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 out too much food. 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.

Thanks for reading!

back to top

Help other people waste less food, too: please share this article:


About the Author

The Rational Kitchen (TRK) is a collaborative effort, but the founder, editor, and writer of most of our articles is Melanie Johnson, an avid cook, kitchenware expert, and technical communications specialist for more than 20 years. Her love of cooking and the frustrating lack of good information about kitchen products led her to create The Rational Kitchen. TRK's mission is to help people make the best decisions they can when buying kitchen gear. 

When not working on product reviews, Melanie enjoys reading, playing with her dog Ruby, vintage video games, and spending time outdoors and with her family.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

{"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}