The Real Expiration Date for Common Foods
The regulation guidelines for expired foods are few and arbitrary. They are also voluntary. They sprang up in the 1970s for more consumer information and perceived freshness. Expiration labels are only required by law for infant formula and baby foods; other laws regarding dairy are left up to some states and vary.
There is waste before, during and after a food item’s grocery stay. Now, more than ever, when throwing out food we’re unsure of, it feels like trashing bags of money – and most of it is completely unnecessary. But nobody wants to read yet another scolding article about it. So…
Now that we know our expiration labels don’t tell us anything at all – where do we go from here? What can we eat with confidence?
First, let’s define some terms for the dates printed on food products:
Expiration – This is an estimated date for when the item is expected to go bad and the consumer is expected to proceed with caution. Still, a surprisingly large amount of these can be expanded.
Sell by – That’s for the retailer, not for you. It’s about peak quality, like with flavor. It’s for store display and, maddeningly, much of this gets tossed – prompting a “dumpster dive” revolution. Wouldn’t it be nice if people didn’t have to relegate themselves to a dumpster to get this perfectly good food? But in the dump it goes first.
Best if Used By/Before and Use By – Again, these refer to quality, not safety.
Pack or Born On – This is just the manufacturer’s date stamp often found on canned goods and beer.
Guaranteed Fresh – This is mostly the baker’s way of letting you know how long you can enjoy the baked good before it possibly goes stale. It doesn’t mean it’s harmful, but could be stale. Homemade is different.
Yogurt and deli meat can last a week to 10 days more than the “sell by” date. Salami at two to three weeks. Most fresh meats, especially poultry and seafood, should be cooked and eaten within days. Eggs a whopping five weeks after expiration. When in doubt, gently place eggs in a big bowl of cold water filled to the top. If the eggs float, toss them. If they “stand up” that just means they are not as fresh but are still okay to eat.
Packaged items can last a long time after expiration but after a number of months you may notice a staleness and waxy taste which could be rancid oils. Packaged and canned items can generally last a year or more after the stamped date. Preppers, feel free to chime in because I know you follow good storage guidelines and practice rotation. High-acid canned goods like tomato don’t last as long as low-acid goods like green beans.
The key to keeping storable foods the longest, is cool, dry and airtight – ideally, never above 70 degrees Fahrenheit. Canned goods included. If you see bulging cans – do not open! It’s rare to see bloated cans, but it could be botulism. Bill Nye made this crystal clear to me as a kid.
Real Simple and iVillage offer a list of items and a “true” expiration, some lasting for years, but again, take with a grain of salt. Throwing out opened juice after a week in the fridge? No way! Of course if you make your juice yourself, ideally, it should be consumed immediately for best benefits. Whole, natural foods and drinks do not generally last as long as the grocery store – but you knew that! For instance, when I buy homemade bread, I know to freeze it, otherwise mold is great indicator I waited one day too long. Lesson learned. Raw honey can last forever and pasteurized honey and brown sugar indefinitely.
Cheese can have a long fridge life too. According to one naturopath, Kerrygold cheese from grassfed cows can be bought in bulk at Whole Foods and sit in the fridge for six months – mine is still fine after one month.
Is it really a great idea to be eating old food? Debatable. Some fruits like bananas can have added benefits with age. Eastern principles frown on old or rotten food for its lack of nutrition and effect on the body or bio-rhythms (except for items better with age or fermentation). But, I’ve seen depression-era folks charge through their 80s having lived a frugal life eating the bad fruits first, expired foods and keeping the fridge well above the suggested 40 degree mark. (Where can I get an immune system like that!)
The bottom line is that expiration is perception and to follow your nose and your gut. If something smells or tastes funny, do not risk it! Common sense and intuition are good friends and thankfully, we are much less likely to get sick in a clean home than from a restaurant. If you think you might get food poisoning, immediately take homeopathic Arsenicum Album 30c and Activated Charcoal.
What have you noticed that you can eat after the stamped date?
Two websites devoted completely to real expiration dates: