What Do Expiration Dates Really Mean?

Have you ever noticed inconsistencies in the dates that appear on the food that you buy? Some are "sell by" dates, some say, "best if used by", others say, "expiration" and others just have a date printed on them, with no explanation of what it represents. What about that carton of milk that has never been opened, but is two days past the date on the lid? Or the eggs whose date passed two weeks prior? Should you go ahead and use these? Throw them away? It's pretty confusing to decipher all of these dates, and often distressing to have to decide between consuming something that's past its date, and risk getting sick, or to throw it away, and risk wasting perfectly good food.

Fortunately, a number of people have researched this conundrum and finally, we have some pretty concrete answers. In a recent article appearing in Slate, food writer Nadia Arumugam argues that we should be less concerned about dates and more aware of what spoiled or spoiling food looks and smells like. The dates on our food have more to do with freshness than quality and relate to when a product was packaged as opposed to predicting a specific date in which our food will no longer be edible. How long your food will last, and how fresh it is, depends on factors such as how the food is handled, how fresh it was before it was packaged, how it was stored during each phase of its processing and how it was handled and stored after you purchased it.

It never hurts to have a little bit of help in determining how long different foods should last under ideal handling and storage conditions, and for that you should look to a website called StillTasty.com. With this site, you can search through thousands of food items, from dairy to meat, dried herbs to beverages, and get a pretty accurate idea of how long certain items should last. Still Tasty also guides you through troves of commonly asked questions such as those pertaining to food purchasing and storage, defrosting, freezing and more.

The consensus among experts is that your best defense it to use common sense, rather than relying on expiration dates. Use your eyes and nose first and if something looks discolored, is moldy or has an off smell, don't take any chances, just discard it. If, however, something looks and smells perfectly fine and has been stored at proper temperatures the whole time you've had it, chances are it's safe to eat, even if it is past the date on the package. It's never worth taking a risk and possibly getting food poisoning, but at the same time, it's wasteful to discard perfectly safe food based on a random date that has little bearing on quality. In the long run, the decision is left up to the individual, but the better informed you are, the better the chances are that you’ll make the right decisions.

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