With different types of dates on food labels it is no wonder that food dating can be confusing. Let’s sort out the dates.
Most dating regulations are required by states or cities and the requirements vary. The only consistent regulation is that when a food date appears it must contain the month, day and year. The federal government only requires dates on infant formula and some baby food. If egg cartons display the USDA shield they must carry a sell-by date.
Sell-by or purchase-by dates expect that you will eat the food after the printed date. It tells the supplier when to remove products from the shelf. If you buy milk on its sell by date you can safely drink it for up to 7 days afterward. It’s estimated that every month over 60% of us dump a quart of perfectly good milk.
Dates on eggs are even more misunderstood. You can safely eat eggs for 3 to 5 weeks after their date expires as long as they are kept refrigerated. As eggs age both the whites and yolks become runnier and more difficult to separate, but they rarely spoil.
Best-if-used-by dates refer to unopened food packages. If stored correctly, all foods can be opened and eaten after the printed date without harm. Shoppers believe use-by dates refer to safety when they are actually about quality – taste, texture, odor, or nutrient quality. The decline in quality is gradual and will not even be noticed at first. Eventually, cereal may taste less fresh and some canned products, like fruits and vegetables, may lose texture but the foods are safe to eat.
An expiration date is just that, the date after which the food should not be eaten because of quality or health issues. However, most expiration dates are quite conservative, so eating a food 1 to 3 days past the date is safe. The exception to the expiration date rule is eggs, which I’ve already noted. Confused?
You are not alone, the USDA estimates that we throw away close to 29 million tons of food a year. Americans throw out a lot of perfectly good food because the date on the package has passed. This waste has significant environmental and economic impact.
Milk – if properly refrigerated it is safe and nutritious for 5 to 7 days after the sell-by date.
Cottage cheese – will last 10 to 14 days after opening the package. Today most cottage cheese is pasteurized which reduces spoilage.
Store bought mayonnaise – will be fresh for 3 to 4 months after opening when stored in the refrigerator.
Yogurt – is safe to eat for 7 to 10 days after its sell-by date. If kept a little longer it will still be fine but the gel may separate, the taste may get tangier and stronger, and the live cultures will start to die off.
It’s estimated that the average American household throws out 14% of all the food bought. In these tough economic times that is a lot of waste. Think before you dump.
© NRH Nutrition Consultants, Inc.
Jo-Ann Heslin, MA, RD, CDN is a registered dietitian and the author of the nutrition counter series for Pocket Books with 12 current titles and sales in excess of 8 million books. The books are widely available at your local or on-line bookseller.
Current titles include:
The Calorie Counter, 5th Ed., 2010
The Ultimate Carbohydrate Counter, 3rd Ed., 2010
The Complete Food Counter, 3rd ed., 2009
The Fat Counter, 7th ed., 2009
The Healthy Wholefoods Counter, 2008
The Cholesterol Counter, 7th Ed., 2008
The Diabetes Carbohydrate and Calorie Counter, 3rd Ed., 2007
For more information on Jo-Ann and her books, go to The Nutrition Experts
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