Daily Dish: Understanding expiration dates


Yesterday, I was craving some jello.  Puzzling since I have never cared for the stuff even as a child.  Nevertheless, I went into my pantry in search of something jiggly to prepare.  Low and behold, the youngest box in my collection expired Sept. 26, 2005!

Fascinated, I took an inventory of other items and discovered that the canned goods even have an expiration date.  I thought they lasted forever.

If you’re like me, you may be trying to eat healthier – emphasizing nutrient-rich, high-fiber fruits and vegetables, lean meats, and low-fat dairy products which probably means you’re purchasing more fresh foods than you had in the past. So I decided to do some research on what the expiration means.  It turns out my pantry is a breeding ground for botulism and who knows what else.

“Use by” and “Sell by” dates may be stamped on your groceries, but what do these terms mean?

Below is a list of typical labeling terms — with their definitions — to help you figure out how to decipher the dates stamped on your fresh foods:

  • Best if used by (or use by): This is the date by which you should aim to use the product, but be advised that this date does not indicate when a food will spoil. Manufacturers voluntarily place this date on the packaging as a general guide. Most foods are okay to consume for about two days after the use-by date but may be lacking in flavor or freshness. Of course, if you notice any signs of spoilage, such as an obvious odor or mold, play it safe and assume the food has spoiled.
  • Sell by: This date is for vendors — not consumers. The sell-by date is meant to notify your grocer to pull the product off the shelf. While you shouldn’t purchase foods beyond their sell-by dates, foods past their sell-by dates are not necessarily spoiled. If the product has remained unopened and there aren’t any signs of spoilage, it may still be okay to eat.
  • Expiration: Just as the word indicates, this is the date on which a food is expected to spoil. You should not consume or taste foods past this date. Eggs are one important exception — they can typically last an additional month past the expiration date as long as they’re kept properly refrigerated.

3 thoughts on “Daily Dish: Understanding expiration dates

  1. Emily,

    This is great information! Food labelling can be quite complicated sometimes.

    I have an idea for those of you who are eating a little healthier these days.

    If you have a canned “neutral pH” food such as green beans in your cubbard that needs to be eaten, but you no longer want to eat that much salt, you can simply drain all the liquid from the can, and run some fresh water into the can several times with the beans still in there and drain it again after each watering, being careful not to cut your self on the lid or rims.

    This should rid the beans of alot of the salt that was originally in the can with the beans.

    Guess you could actually remove the salt like this with non-neutral pH vegetables, but I mention this because I’m not crazy about buying canned vegetables that are botulism prone (neutral like green beans) — I’d much rather remove it right before I’m ready to cook the stuff, so I buy the regular salted versions in canned. Salt, after all, serves a purpose while it’s storing. For the non-neutral vegetables that are a little safer, low or no added salt in the canned is fine with me.

    Sooo…check with your doctor to see if s/he thinks that would still be too much salt for you, before you try this. I really think most people could wash it thoroughly enough to remove most of it, unless one just can’t have any added salt, I guess.

    Also, if you are trying to use up the canned in order to switch to fresh, this is less wasteful.

    What I’ve always thought was a good idea was to take canned goods to a food bank while they still have a good 6 months left on them. Otherwise, they will likely exceed that exp. date before you know it. At the food bank, it will be used right away, so it won’t end up in the garbage.

    My home church has people bring canned and dry foods with them one Sunday each month for delivery to our local mission’s food pantry which has won a prize from the Houston Food Bank with whom they cooperate.
    In addition, each of the classes is asked to bring a different type of item (usually they purchase these) so that they have the right balance of foods for distribution.

    Just wanted to pass along the bean washing idea.

    Down here on the coast, we tend to have to stock up on a few canned items and dry foods for hurricane season and other contingencies when we might be without power for an extended period. If we don’t use them, they are excellent for the food pantry donation.

    Happy eating!

  2. Good idea about the green beans – I had to throw them out – had a can dated in the 1900s – I should have mentioned the foodbank idea. Our church operates a food bank two Saturdays each month – yesterday we provided bags of groceries to about 200 families. There are so many needy families right here at home, it breaks your heart. Happy Holy Week!

  3. Like you, I thought canned goods lasted forever. I went thru my pantry the other day and found some soup that was 3-years old!!! Needless to say, I tossed it. Just about killed me too, because I hate to throw out food, especially canned goods. Thanks for the info!!

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