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100 Day Challenge #38: Learn the true meaning of (those confusing) food expiration dates

All those different dates and phrases such as “use by,” “sell by,” and “best if used by” on food packages are causing a lot of confusion which leads to a tremendous amount of good food being thrown away. According to the Department of Agriculture, the average American throws away nearly a pound of food each day. That’s an astounding amount of food! Why are we doing this? Why are we throwing away so much food, when most of it is still good?

According to the Natural Resources Defense Council 90% of people don't understand what these dates and labels mean and throw away food that is still perfectly good.

So let’s clear up what some of these phrases mean.


  • Best if used by/before is there to give you an idea of how long the food will have a fresh taste, flavor, and quality and not a date for spoiling (or that the food will be unsafe to eat after this date). For example crackers might not be as crisp or salsa might not be at its peak of flavor past the date, but it doesn't mean they're not safe to eat. There is no standardization that regulates this date by food type, and it is determined by each manufacturer.

  • Sell by date is also set by the manufacturer to give the retailer an idea of how long to keep the item on the store shelves for best quality.


With the exception of baby formula there are no federal regulations for these dates. They are merely a best guess for optimal freshness and peak taste and don't actually refer to the safety of a food product.

If you have any questions about how long to keep your food, you can download the USDA app called FoodKeeper. It is free and easy to work. If you look up eggs on this app it will tell you “for freshness and quality, this item should be consumed within 3-5 weeks if refrigerated from the date of purchase.” It'll also give you tips on proper cooking temperatures for foods like chicken for example and how long you can safely keep food frozen. Did you now that most canned foods can be kept for 2 to 5 years (except for foods high in acid such as tomatoes)?

We understand that these dates are meant to be helpful, but there is also plenty of room for common sense when making the conscious decision if your food has gone bad (and if you’re not sure, then err on the side of caution, no one needs to get sick!). It is VERY clear and obvious when milk is getting ready to spoil. All you have to do is smell it and if you crack an egg that has gone bad, there is no doubt in your mind.


So let's be more proactive when deciding whether our food is still fresh enough to eat and not just operate on autopilot guided by a date that's merely a suggestion for peak freshness and taste. Food is a precious resource that needs to be valued, not wasted!


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