Do you constantly check the expiration dates on food items inside your fridge? Do you then toss it out immediately? If so, you’re not alone. Most U.S. citizens throw out almost a pound of food a day, according to a 2018 PLoS ONE study. But you might be throwing out food that is still edible.
“Food waste drives me crazy even in my own household,” said Bonnie Taub-Dix, RDN, a dietitian based in New York City, creator of BetterThanDieting.com, and author of Read It Before You Eat It: Taking You from Label to Table. “I can’t tell you how many times my kids have said, ‘Is this still good?’ about something that had an expiration date for the day! (And of course, they want me to taste it first.)”
Although the lingering question of whether or not food is still edible is constantly on everyone’s mind, first there needs to be a clear definition of what an expiration date is.
What Does an Expiration Date Tell You?
Shockingly, the truth is that the FDA doesn’t mandate expiration dates on foods. “The FDA does not require manufacturers to place expiration or use by dates on food products except for infant formulas,” said Deborah Kotz, press officer for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. “Some state and local agencies require expiration dates on certain food labels, but most often manufacturers voluntarily include expiration or use by dates.”
In fact, according to a Harvard researcher, the non-regulated dates can be compared to the “Wild West”. So what do these terms ultimately mean? Here is a debrief from the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service:
- Best by: For consumers; a sign of when flavor or quality is at its peak. This has no relation to food safety.
- Sell by: For the store; a sign of how long to keep a product on shelves. This has no relation to food safety.
- Use by: For consumers; a sign of when to use a product by for the best quality. This has no relation to food safety.
Notice the repeating theme? We do, and yes, it’s still a bit confusing.
According to a Food Marketing Institute survey, confusion over these dates causes 90 percent of Americans to throw away perfectly safe food. The common culprits are known to be soup, eggs, dairy products, cereal, and bread.
Can You Eat Food After the Expiration Date?
Since there is no clear and set rule to define an expiration date, New York City-based dietitian, Brooke Alpert, RD, author of The Diet Detox, explains that you should ultimately trust your instincts. “A good rule of thumb to follow is to use your sense; if something smells, feels, tastes, or looks bad, it probably is,” said Alpert. “If you are not sure, always err on the side of caution to avoid foodborne illness.”
In order to extend the shelf life of your food, Taub-Dix suggests the key is to know how to store it. “If a product is stored properly, it should last beyond the date listed on the package. There is so much food waste in this country; it’s sad how much good food gets thrown in the trash,” she said.Related: 10 Foods to Never Ignore their Expiration Date
How to Extend the Lifespan of Food
“There’s new legislation being proposed that will create nationwide rules for labeling food, clearing up the confusion between a date that might mean the food may not be at its optimal quality (taste wise) versus the date that means a product is unsafe to eat,” Taub-Dix explained.
Try using the USDA’s Foodkeeper App to maximize the lifespan of your groceries. Keep their food safety and storage charts in your kitchen and refer to these five pointers from Alpert the next time you’re thinking of tossing out food.
- “For prepackaged items and canned goods, six months to one year is the average shelf life if foods are kept in cool, dry storage.”
- “Buy fresh goods like produce and dairy in smaller quantities on a more regular basis, such as weekly, so you can use them up faster to avoid spoilage.”
- “Meal plan to minimize food waste. That way, you’ll buy only what you need for the meals you are going to prepare.”
- “Purchase frozen fruits and veggies to avoid throwing away produce that goes bad before you are able to use it.”
- “Stock your pantry with healthy dried products like quinoa, black rice, dried lentils, and low-sodium beans so you have meal staples on hand whenever you need them.”
Scientists and researchers alike are continuing to explore better strategies to help consumers reduce waste. Brands in the U.K. are also looking to keep products fresh and edible. Arla Foods, a dairy company, is testing out new sticker labels called Mimica Touch that go from smooth to bumpy when products or temperatures change to signal actual expiration. However, although these technologies are advancing, until they move stateside, always keep food safety guidelines in mind and when in doubt, stick to the tried-and-true smell test.