Expiration Dates – What Do They Mean?

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If you can reduce your food waste, not only will your food budget go down, but also your carbon footprint.  On average, Americans waste between 12-20% of what they buy, and America as a whole wastes about 40% of its food supply.  Producing this food that never gets used accounts for more than 1/4 of America’s consumption of fresh water, and also uses about 300 million barrels of oil per year.  Not to mention all the methane that emerges when this wasted food rots (methane is a potent greenhouse gas)!

Luckily there are LOTS of ways you can reduce the amount of food you waste at home, from buying less to being more efficient with what you have lying around.  I am going to write about many of the ways you can achieve this over the coming months, but to start, a few words about expiration dates.

There are different kinds of expiration dates: 

“sell-by” = a guide for the store to know how long it can display an item for sale (yogurt, milk, most dairy products are sell-by ….which means if your milk/yogurt/cheese doesn’t smell spoiled or look weird, it’s probably fine…I don’t even look at the date on my dairy products, I just trust my senses, especially with yogurt–which is kind of like spoiled milk anyway–usually tastes good for up to a month after the date on the carton)

“best before”or “best by” = refers to the quality or flavor of the food (like jelly/jam, nuts, oils)
“use by”= this is a true expiration date, after which it’s best not to use a product at all (like mayonnaise, meats, etc)
“use or freeze by” = literally, use it or freeze it by this date; once it’s in the freezer, the product will last 3-6 months longer than the date, depending on the type of food)

For a complete guide on how to read expiration dates, check out this easy-to-read article from Business Week.

Remember, the things that give you food poisoning or make you sick are usually colorless, odorless, and tasteless — so you’re not necessarily avoiding illness by throwing away your 1-lb block of cheese that has a tiny speck of mold on it! 

Economist Magazine, Nov 26, 2009 (Source for statistics used in this post).

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