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A Complete Guide to Understanding Expiration Labels

Here is everything you should know about expiration dates, sell by dates, and when to keep food that would otherwise be thrown out.


This page is dedicated to that little box of black bean pasta in your cabinet.


You know, the one you bought during a rush of motivation to eat a more healthy variety of foods, yet somehow gets overlooked week after week as other forms of carb grace your plate instead. Then, one day, in a rush of motivation, you pick up that box of undesirable penne and say, “Today is the day.” Hold on… as it sat as a lonely isolation, the best-by date came and went, months ago.


But wait! Before you toss it in the trash, we want to propose a radical idea: ignore that expiration date. Hear us out; contrary to popular belief, food doesn’t magically go bad on the date listed. So what’s the deal with those expiry dates? We’re so glad you asked.


According to Science Daily “Confusion over date labeling leads to billions of pounds of food waste every year.” To put that into perspective, The Great Pyramid of Khufu comes in at 12 billion pounds. That’s a lot of wasted food! In honor of Earth Day, we’d like to help clear up some ambiguity surrounding those little printed digits.


Being aware of unnecessary food waste isn't just good for the earth…it’s good for your pocket book!



Food Expiration Dates; What Do They Mean?


To sum it up in a word, this dating practice is primarily used to ensure QUALITY. Below we’ve outlined the (albeit barely perceptible) differences between them.


Sell By

This is generally geared more towards the store, to help them organize and keep track of inventory. Depending on the specific food item, you’re working with anywhere between a couple days (in the case of poultry, etc) to weeks (such as eggs) after that date.


Use By

This date gives you a guideline for when to cook/use/eat the product, within the time frame of best quality.


Best By

You guessed it, food items are the best (quality) before that date. This is a suggestion for when the product should ideally be consumed, as determined by the food company.


Freeze By

Freezing food by this date is intended to slow the natural progression of deterioration, and maintain the quality until you’re ready to use it. Just keep in mind that even when freezing, nature will still take its course. It’s a good idea to regularly take inventory of your freezer, so you know what you already have on hand, and if it’s still edible.

 

The good news is: it’s pretty evident when food is beyond the point of no return. All you need is your five senses and a basic knowledge of how food items are supposed to look. Voila!


Here’s why: According to the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service, as a general rule, foods are still safe to eat (even if they have passed their “date”) so long as they are not showing signs of having spoiled:


“Spoiled foods will develop an off odor, flavor or texture due to naturally occurring spoilage bacteria. If a food has developed such spoilage characteristics, it should not be eaten.”


Yeast, mold, and bacteria will naturally grow on food, especially the longer it sits unused. Proper storing and handling of food will slow this procession, ideally giving you more time to use the items, and preventing unnecessary waste. With the rising cost of food (and everything else), it just makes sense!


Sure, some food items are a bit trickier than others to diagnose. When in doubt, it’s always a good idea to consult the experts. Here is a link to the USDA’s guide of frequently asked questions regarding meat in particular. We also recommend checking out the FoodKeeper App, developed by the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service, Cornell University, and the Food Marketing Institute. The goal of the app is to empower consumers with knowledge, as stated on the website: “It will help you maximize the freshness and quality of items. By doing so you will be able to keep items fresh longer than if they were not stored properly.”


The site is broken down by food type, with subcategories to be even more specific; there’s also a search function. While this is a valuable tool to ensure *peak quality,* remember to assess whether the food in question has truly expired, or is just aging gracefully.



Before we move on, just a quick note on Salmonella, aka the supposed reason we weren’t allowed to eat raw cookie dough. A common misunderstanding regarding food expiration dates, is that food-borne illnesses are always lurking nearby, waiting for the magic switch to flip to “expired.” According to NOURISH by WebMD, “Food-borne illnesses are not a result of natural decay. Bacteria grow in contaminated food, so make sure you store food properly.‌”


Hopefully with this knowledge in hand, you will feel more confident in making decisions in the kitchen. If you’re not there yet, keep reading. We have some ideas for you that we hope will help.


Note: we want to mention that infant formula has its own unique set of rules regarding best-by dates and expiration.


Understanding Expiration Dates to Help Reduce Food Waste; Knowledge is Power


Think Like a Restaurant


In order to turn a profit, restaurants waste as little as possible. They create daily specials and other dishes, keeping in mind what they’re already purchasing for other items on the menu. How can you apply this to your own kitchen?


If you’re buying a food item for a specific recipe, try to plan other meals that will utilize that same ingredient. A little creativity can pare down your shopping list, and help keep food out of the trash.


Repurpose


Everyone knows the classic bananas-into-banana-bread move, but we like to bring that ingenuity to everything in the kitchen, especially when repurposing food items instead of throwing them away.


Maybe those steaks you bought won’t wow at a dinner party, but they could make a top-notch Mongolian Beef. Or your rotisserie chicken looks a little sad? Why not try something new and save some room in the landfill by trying your hand at our Chicken and Mushrooms Claypot Rice by Chef Johnny Lee.


Shhhhhhh. A little-known trade secret is that leftover rice that’s been sitting in the fridge makes the BEST homemade fried rice!

 

We live in a culture that says “If it ain’t pretty, that ain’t it.”


This likely contributes to the fact that, as the American Journal of Agricultural Economics reports, the average household wastes 31.9% of the food they buy, averaging from $1,500 to $1,866 a year. Something's gotta give. We can each, individually, take action to fight again the food waste problem in America.


For more information on how you can help food waste starting in your own kitchen, check out these resources:




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