Food can be expensive, and some of it is getting more expensive all the time. Sure, you can try to offset the costs by using coupons or shopping around for deals, but no matter how many coupons you stack or how great the deal is, you’re still going to have to hand over some cash to get what you want at the grocery store. The interesting part about all of this is considering how much of the food we buy winds up getting tossed out. Research shows that more than 30 percent of all edible food is wasted, resulting in more than 200 billion pounds of food waste each year. This, of course, also means we’re not only hurting the environment with wasted food and food packaging, we’re also practically throwing money away.
Blount Memorial registered dietitian Heather Pierce says there are a few reasons why this happens, but one major one is the average consumer’s lack of understanding of the dates on food products. “Not everyone realizes that there are some key differences between those dates on the foods we buy,” Pierce said. “Just because a food item has a date on it, doesn’t necessarily mean that the item should be thrown away once that date has passed. The part you should really pay the most attention to are the words that come just before the date, such as the ‘expiration date,’ the ‘use by date’ and the ‘sell by date.’ These all mean different things and knowing the difference can help you get the most bang for your buck and reduce food waste,” Pierce explained. “Of course, these rules apply as long as no apparent spoilage is present and the foods have been stored properly,” she added.
“An ‘expiration date’ is one you should definitely take at face value,” Pierce said. “These are usually put on foods for safety reasons. If the product has passed its ‘expiration date’ you should definitely throw it out, as it may be unsafe for you to eat after the date printed on it. The ‘use by’ date is mostly an indicator of when the food is at its peak quality. The exception to that is for infant formula, which you should not use after the ‘use by’ date. If the product says, ‘best if used by,’ the date on it is used more as an indicator of the product’s freshness and quality, rather than safety. A good example of this would be canned food items, which often are dated based on their acidity. Canned tomatoes, for instance, typically are good for a year due to their high acidity. Canned green beans, on the other hand, can have ‘best if used by’ dates that are between two and five years because they’re low-acid foods. Either way, a product that has passed its ‘best if used by date’ may not be as tasty as it would have been if you ate it before that time,” she explained.
When it comes to “sell by dates,” Pierce says it’s more for the retailer than the consumer. “Grocery stores are a big contributor to food waste, too,” Pierce said. “When you’re in the store, you definitely want to make sure the ‘sell by date’ on an item hasn’t passed. This date is on the package to tell the retailer when to pull the item from the shelf, so if it has gone by, you should pass on that item or look for one that hasn’t passed its ‘sell by date.’ These can be a little confusing for shoppers, though, because not every food item is the same. Eggs, for instance, typically stay good three to five weeks after you buy them. Ground meats and poultry, on the other hand, should be cooked within a day or two or frozen for use later,” she added.
Ultimately, Pierce says, knowing more about the dates on the foods you buy can help you avoid wasting it. “Keeping these things in mind when you’re shopping can not only help you plan how you’ll create your snacks and meals each week, but also save you money and prevent food waste in the long run,” she said. “If you want to learn more about how long specific foods retain their freshness, even if they don’t have dates on the label, visit www.fsis.usda.gov. Sometimes, the information there is even more reliable and useful than going by ‘sell by dates’ alone,” she added.