Should You Follow Expiration Dates and Sell-by Dates?

by FoodPrint

Published: 10/30/18, Last updated: 9/27/21

It’s heartbreaking to spend money on quality ingredients and then discover you haven’t been able to use them up by their expiration date. 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 if you eat something after those dates pass? [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.

Expiration Date Labels: Best-by Date, Sell-by Date and Use-by Date Definitions

Date labels are, in some cases, not that strict. 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. In fact, the only federally regulated food date label is the one required on infant formula. Other than that, food product dating is completely voluntary, and producers tend to be quite conservative, understanding that conditions in grocery stores and homes might not be ideal. Nonetheless, most shoppers and home cooks use these dates to gauge freshness and quality. If this is you, here’s a look at what the terms really mean:

Best by date: This date guarantees the period of time the product will be at its best flavor or quality — when bread will still taste soft or crackers crisp. The food will still remain edible after this date, it is not about food safety, but about taste.

Sell by date: This date is determined by producers to inform sellers when to remove items from the shelves. The goal is to ensure consumers receive the item at its optimal quality, which can last for several days to several weeks past the date, depending on the item. Milk for instance, according to Consumer Reports, should last five to seven days past its sell-by date if stored properly.

Use by date: This is the last day the producer guarantees the best quality of the product. Again, except for the case of infant formula, this is not a safety date nor a mandatory label.

So why does the food industry use expiration date labels that don’t need to be strictly adhered to? 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.

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

Preventing Food Waste by Understanding What Date Labels Really Mean

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. 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, it’s a simple question: 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 date 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. Learn more about plant-based milks here.
Pointers for Preventing Food Waste Milk and Yogurt Chilled properly, milk is usually good for about a week after its sell-by date. Yogurt lasts slightly longer, two to three weeks unopened, or roughly 10 days once opened. 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 and yogurt.
Pointers for Preventing Food Waste Cheese Depending on the variety, cheese lifespans range from one to two weeks for soft cheese like Brie to six months to a year for a hard cheese like Pecorino. To keep cheese fresh, remove cheese sold in plastic wrap (which reduces shelf life because it traps in air and moisture), and rewrap in waxed paper, foil or cheese paper. Hard cheeses like Parmesan can be wrapped well and frozen; use up softer cheeses with these ideas before they spoil.
Pointers for Preventing Food Waste Flours and Rice White rice and white flour will last for years, but whole wheat flours and brown rice will only last a few months, thanks to the higher fat content in the unrefined grains. Store these in the freezer if you plan to keep them for longer than a few months, and use these ideas for extra rice.
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 storing nuts in the freezer. They can be used raw, but will have better flavor if toasted gently in a pan or toaster oven before use.
Pointers for Preventing Food Waste Dried Beans and Lentils Dried beans won’t go bad if you store them too long (they keep shelf stable for years), but older beans take longer to cook and cook less evenly. Read through our tips for cooking beans to help make your pot delicious no matter how old the beans.
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 open jars on a piece of tape or a sticky note. Refrigerated, condiments like mustard, mayonnaise, ketchup, pickled relishes, chile sauce and more can last for years. Avoid contamination by always using clean utensils with condiment jars. Read more about how to power your way through leftover bits of condiments.
Pointers for Preventing Food Waste Oils Oils stored in sealed cans will last years, whereas oils in glass jars or open bottles are more prone to spoilage. Keeping oils in a cool dry place (AKA away from the stovetop) will help them last longer. Keep flavorful nut oils and rendered animal fats refrigerated to help preserve. To test if oils have gone bad, smell it. Old oil will develop metallic, soapy or fishy smells. Use these tips to cook with oils before they go bad.
Pointers for Preventing Food Waste Chocolate If you find a thin white powder on your chocolate, you can ignore and eat away, it's perfectly safe. The white powder, called bloom, just means temperature fluctuations may have caused some of the fats to rise to the surface of the bar. To keep this from happening, store chocolate in a cool dry place.

What You Can Do:

  • Visit our Cooking Sustainably page for more creative tips on using up all of a food so none has to go to waste.
  • Check out the USDA FoodKeeper app mentioned in the article to maximize the freshness of food items in your kitchen.
  • Learn more about food waste and why it’s important to be a part of reducing how much food we all throw away.

Top photo by Adobe Stock/By Luis Castro.

More Reading

Fair trade certifications impede worker organizing, according to new report

December 27, 2023

The basics of coffee labeling

October 18, 2023

The Foodprint of Tea

April 4, 2023

The Basics of Fair Trade Labels

February 13, 2023

How Hormel Exploited Confusion Over the Natural Label

January 23, 2023

Grocery Supply Chains: Understanding Why Eggs Cost What They Cost

January 3, 2023

Making Sense of Regenerative Labels

July 6, 2022

5 Things You Should Know Before Buying A Chocolate Bar

October 26, 2021

Efforts to Strengthen the USDA Organic Standard Pick Up Steam

July 26, 2021

The USDA Might Finally Update the Definition of Natural Nitrites and Nitrates Used in Processed Meats

January 11, 2021