Save money by understanding the expiration date on your food

Close-up of the expiration date bag tie on a package of hot dog buns.

Is that expiration date a drop dead date? (Photo Credit: CC BY-SA/Bando26/Wikipedia)

The expiration date that appears on packaged food is confusing to some people, largely due to the words used, such as “Best Before,” “Sell By” or “Use By.” Is food still safe to eat on that date, or slightly after that date? Let’s put our food safety hats on and think about saving money by understanding what that expiration date means.

Expiration date is a quality – not safety – measure

The expiration date on a package of food means something different, depending upon the phrase that accompanies the date. None of the possible phrases refer to a point past which food becomes unsafe.

  • Sell By: The “sell by” date is intended to inform store proprietors how long a food item should reasonably be kept on the shelves. If the date passes before sale, the food item should be pulled. Generally speaking, this date is the last day on which the food can still be considered to be at its peak of freshness, taste and consistency. It’s still safe to eat after the date, by a reasonable period of time.
  • Best If Used By: This is similar to the previous phrase. After that date, you may notice a difference in taste and consistency. Peanut butter may experience some harmless oil separation, and sour cream may become a bit more sour.
  • Use By: Here again, the date marks the end of the top quality cycle, although there can be some variance. For a little while, the food is still safe to eat. If you see hunks of mold or other living things on it after the date, it’s advisable to give the food a pass.

These are among the most common food expiration date phrases. Some food manufacturers use phrases like “born on” or to be gimmicky, or “guaranteed fresh” on baked goods, a date after which the goods will likely become stale, but still be fine to eat. Ultimately, all the phrases refer to freshness and quality, rather than safety.

Saving money by understanding when food spoils

The USDA recommends that consumers eat food before its “use by” or “best if used by” date to be safe, but it is admittedly a conservative estimate. “Sell by” affords the consumer a fair amount of time before the food actually spoils, in most cases. Milk tends to be undrinkable by one week past the sell by date, while eggs can last three to five weeks. For recommendations on other foods, check out the USDA link below.

What about those everyday situations regarding leftover food that leave you scratching your head? There’s no expiration date issue in play in that scenario, but there are some simple rules. In general, store food properly, whether it’s in a refrigerator, freezer, or cupboard. Package it in a sealed container, in most cases. If you’ve left something perishable on the counter during a hot summer, it may not be safe to eat anymore. With eggs, do the water float test. Use the smell test, because it can work. If it smells funny, trust your instincts. Better to preserve your health than to focus on saving money.

The truth about food expiration dates




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