Good news for those who find themselves regretfully tossing out their untouched groceries: If you’re one to throw away your food as soon as it hits that barely legible date on its packaging, you’re probably wasting way more food than you need to. Turns out, those dates aren’t necessarily hard expiration dates—and they definitely don’t all mean the same thing.
Don’t worry, though. We can clear up the confusion: In a recent report for Institute of Food Technologists, Bob Brackett, Ph.D., director of the Institute for Food Safety and Health at the Illinois Institute of Technology, breaks down the difference between those “use-by,” “sell-by,” and “best-by” labels.
Here are few other things Brackett says you should keep in mind:
You Almost Definitely Toss Your Products Too Early
Unless a use-by or best-by label is followed by the words “for safety,” these dates refer to the quality of your products—so there’s no need to panic if you’re a few days past the use-by date. “You can probably eat it and not worry about it, just understand it’s not the best quality anymore,” says Brackett. There is one caveat: if you’ve opened the product already. Once you do that, things become a little less precise because the food is at risk of being contaminated by your or the environment, something the date on the packaging doesn’t account for.
Don’t Just Judge By Smell or Taste
If you’re like most people, you rely on sensory cues like a sour smell, slimy texture, or weird color to tell if your food has gone bad. But Brackett says that disease-causing organisms are invisible and aren’t behind spoilage problems. So just because your milk hasn’t gone sour yet doesn’t mean it hasn’t gone bad.
Manufacturers Decide Which Label They Use
While Brackett says many are pushing for a more regulated system to avoid confusion in consumers, there is no standardized rule that determines which types of products get use-by dates and which get sell-by stamps. Manufacturers do their own shelf-life studies and indicate the quality timeline of their products however they deem fit.
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