Should You Follow Expiration Dates and Sell-by Dates?

by FoodPrint


It’s heartbreaking to spend money on quality ingredients and then discover you haven’t been able to use them up by their expiration dates. It’s a waste of money and a waste of all of the resources that went into producing that food. But what does “expiration date” really mean? Is the food definitely inedible? And what’s the difference between a “sell by” date and a “best if used by” date? What will happen to you if you eat something with a date that’s passed? [Insert food panic here].

One essential way to reduce food waste is to figure out which sell by/expiration dates matter and which don’t — and to build the skill of using your eyes and nose as a guide, handy to have when you are developing your abilities as a home cook. The dates are, in some cases, not that strict. In fact, the only federally regulated food date label is the one required on infant formula.

This excellent overview by Consumer Reports breaks it all down, and we highly recommend giving it a read. The short story is that, for a lot of foods, those dates are a rough suggestion. If you’re willing to let sight and smell be your true guide, you might be able to extend the life of your food and have less of it — and your money — end up in the trash.

Spoiled food will usually look different in texture and color, smell unpleasant and taste bad before it becomes unsafe to eat.

Consumer Reports

for the Washington Post

For some foods, like pantry items (lentils, oats, etc.) it is more a question of taste than a matter of safety — i.e. your lentils won’t taste as yummy, but they’ll be edible past their expiration date. For more perishable items like dairy, eggs, meat and seafood, the stakes are a bit higher, but you can usually tell something is wrong, by sight, smell and/or touch. Often times it’s a simple: is there mold growing on it? And if it’s cheese, you can usually just scrape the mold off and enjoy (the remaining cheese, not the mold).

Here’s what to look for when figuring out if some common foods that have passed their expiration dates have spoiled, as well as tips for keeping track of how long they’ve been in your fridge:

Item Pointers for Preventing Food Waste
Pointers for Preventing Food Waste Canned Food Avoid cans with bulging or popped seals. If they look OK, note that they can last as long as two to five years.
Pointers for Preventing Food Waste Boxed Stock or Nut Milks Take a piece of tape and/or a post it and write what date you opened the box, since the use by date is often “two weeks after opening.” If it’s a little after two weeks since you opened it, pour it out into a bowl, smell and look for weirdness growing in it.
Pointers for Preventing Food Waste Milk Give it a sniff. Does it smell vinegary or has it separated out into clumps? If it does, it’s probably gone over. If not, we have ideas for how to use milk.
Pointers for Preventing Food Waste Nuts If you keep them on the shelf too long, they go rancid. It won’t hurt you to eat them, but they taste awful. Avoid this by keeping them in the freezer. If you’re baking with them, just grab what you need and put directly into batter. If they’re going onto salads or into rice dishes you can toast them in a pan or toaster oven to revive them.
Pointers for Preventing Food Waste Eggs Don’t take them out of their carton and use the refrigerator holder. You could lose track of when you purchased them. Instead keep them in their carton and roughly follow the dates. Read what to do to use up your eggs before they go bad.
Pointers for Preventing Food Waste Condiments & Dressings Write the date you opened them on a piece of tape or a sticky note. Read more about how to power your way through leftover bits of condiments.
Pointers for Preventing Food Waste Chocolate Ignore the white film, go ahead and eat your chocolate. It just means there might have been some temperature fluctuations and it’s the cocoa butter rising to the surface.

So why does the food industry use expiration dates that don’t need to be strictly adhered to? Well, of course it’s very good to track how old a product is, so supermarkets don’t put old or bad food on the shelves. And it behooves them to be conservative, both because they don’t want their customers getting sick and because the faster you throw out their product, the more of it you’ll buy over time. But it also behooves us as consumers to learn some common sense guidelines for using all our food before it spoils and heightening our abilities to spot food that has actually gone bad.

What You Can Do:

More Reading

Food Labels That Protect The Birds and the Bees (and the Fish)

March 3, 2020

What Makes Olive Oil Extra Virgin and Can I Trust the Label?

December 16, 2019

The True Cost of a Free Thanksgiving Turkey

October 11, 2019

What Do Food Labels Mean?

September 5, 2019

What Do Tuna Can Labels Tell You About Sustainability?

July 24, 2019

Making Sense of Dairy Labels

July 18, 2019

Whiskey Distilleries Are Bringing Back Heirloom Corn Varieties

June 19, 2019

Wine Label Guide: Natural, Biodynamic, Organic and More

May 6, 2019

Rancher Dan Gibson on Eating Less Meat (But Better Meat)

October 26, 2018