A Guide to Help Demystify Food Expiration Dates

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Are you as confused as I am when it comes to food expiration dates? There are so many ways that things are labeled and dated, even mystery codes that you need a key to crack! Here's what all the various terms mean so that you can make informed decisions when purchasing or deciding if something is worth keeping or throwing away.

Why Are Expiration Labels So Confusing?

One of the main reasons why food expiration labeling is so confusing is that, with the exception of infant formula, product dating is not regulated. The FDA generally does not require food firms to date their products, so this information is entirely at the discretion of the manufacturer.

What Do The Labels Mean?

Here are some of the most commonly used labels and what they mean:

  • Expires On: You'll only see this on infant formula or some baby foods, and these are the only federally regulated food products. Always use the product before the expiration date.
  • Sell-By: Tells the store how long to display the product for sale. You should buy the product before the date expires, but this is not a safety date and you can use the product after the sell-by date.
  • Best if Used By (or Before): Date recommended for best flavor or quality. It is not a purchase or safety date.
  • Use-By: The last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality. Adhere to this date for meat and eggs.
  • Born On: Most commonly used to date beer, this refers to the date the beer was bottled.
  • Guaranteed Fresh: Usually referring to bakery items and when to eat them by for peak freshness.
  • Closed or Coded Dating: Usually on canned or nonperishable foods, this is the trickiest and most confusing one, as it can be a date or the date can be coded by the manufacturer.

Do I Need to Follow the Date on the Label?

These official-looking labels and dates might make you feel like you need to strictly adhere to them, but that's not really the case. With the exception of the "Expires On" date, the dates are up to the discretion of the manufacturer, who focuses more on the quality of the product than it going bad.

In other words, manufacturers are going to err on the conservative side with dates and suggest ones where the food is still going to taste the way they intended.

If foods are stored properly, however, they are usually still safe to eat past their suggested dates. If you purchase unlabeled meat or eggs, the USDA has a chart here on when you should cook or freeze the product by.

For other foods, use your senses of smell and taste, as food that has gone bad will definitely have off smells and flavors. Throw out canned foods that are bloated, and let common sense be your guide — if you have any doubt, throw it out!

(Image credits: Mattz90/Shutterstock)

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