How accurate are food expiration dates?
It’s been a long day. The dinner hour has passed, and you’re looking forward to a quick bowl of cereal before turning in for the night. Unfortunately, the expiration date on the box has passed, and once again, you’re tossing out a perfectly good box before even opening it.
Food expiration dates can put a pause on meal plans. Luckily, the United States Department of Agriculture offers background information on product dating, including guidance on how long the foods are safe for consumption. They offer this explanation of date-labeling phrases:
- A “Best if Used By/Before” indicates when a product will be of best flavor or quality. It is not a purchase or safety date.
A “Sell-By” date tells the store how long to display the product for sale for inventory management. It is not a safety date.
A “Use-By” date is the last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality. It is not a safety date except for when used on infant formula as described below.
Lisa Osowski, a clinical dietitian at Advocate Condell Medical Center in Libertyville, Ill., says items with prolonged shelf life are often those which contain preservatives. These foods do not spoil as quickly because the preservatives help to block the growth of bacteria, molds or yeast.
Regardless of the addition of preservatives, these foods do contain the potential to spoil. Before eating, check to make sure that there are no signs of spoilage, such as bad odor, chunky consistency or a bubbling and frothy appearance. According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), consumption of spoiled foods can lead to food poisoning, which is attributed to bacteria such as B. cereus and E. coli.
Osowski also stresses the importance of remembering that preservatives are not healthy for the body if eaten too often. “For optimal health,” Osowski says, “one should plan his or her menu with a heavy rotation of fresh fruits and veggies, meats and grains and limited reliance on foods with added preservatives.”
Navigating when it’s time to throw something out versus when to keep it can be helpful in preventing food waste. Remember the guidelines, and don’t let expiration dates ruin your meal plan.
About the Author
Shvetali Thatte, a junior at the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy, is a remote Public Affairs and Marketing intern for Advocate Condell Medical Center in Libertyville, Ill. She spends her time by engaging in clubs and sports at school as well as volunteering at the hospital and nearby tutoring programs. She enjoys spending time with her friends, traveling, and reading. In the future, she hopes to pursue a career in medicine with a focus on public health.