When Sell-by Dates Do and Don’t Matter

Many people have resolved that 2023 will be the year they cut down on food waste. That is an admirable goal. It saves a ton of money and is better for the environment. One significant step is buying less. Using grocery lists and meal prepping, you can buy precisely what you need and throw away less food. Another thing is just knowing more about how long food is good for.

In recent years there has been a lot of talk about the arbitrary nature of sell-by and use-by dates. Sell-by dates and best-by dates are quality indicators, not safety guidelines. Only infant formula had a federally regulated use-by date.

In a study, the Food Marketers Institute found most people err on the side of caution when it comes to food safety. In fact, 91 percent of Americans they surveyed said they occasionally threw away food past its sell-by date. And 25 percent said they always did. That’s a lot of food waste!

The FDA recommends smelling food and visually inspecting it for changes in “color, consistency, or texture.” Experts agree that listeria — bacteria most commonly found on refrigerated produce is “much more problematic” than spoiled food. So wash your produce well and eat it when it is fresh!  

Lots of food has obvious indicators that will tell you if it is bad, far more trustworthy than a date. Eggs are an obvious one. No one wants to throw away an egg with how expensive they are at the moment! While many believe checking an egg’s freshness by floating it in water is the best test, it isn’t a surefire test. If an egg floats, it’s older but not necessarily spoiled. If eggs have a smell of sourness or sulfur, it’s bad. If the white is slightly pink or the shell has a powdery residue, it has bacteria.

Canned goods can be trusted to be safe for years as long as the can is sturdy. The contents are most likely acceptable if there is no rust, swelling or dents in the can. The sniff test, your eyes and common sense are your best guide for those products. Frozen food can’t grow bacteria. If your freezer is trustworthy and you don’t have a power out, nothing in there will go bad. However, food loses quality when frozen for a long time, so stews may be the best place for meat that has been in your freezer for five years! Hard cheeses are good for six months, and if they grow mold, you can cut the mold off and still enjoy it. Tomato sauce you open to make pasta or a pizza is so acidic that it stops the growth of bacteria and can stay good for weeks in the refrigerator. Peanut butter, left in a cool place, unopened, can stay good for up to two years. That’s because it’s filled with stabilizers and preservatives. Even natural peanut butter remains fine for several months in the pantry.    

There are some foods that don’t last as well as others. Whole grains that contain fat, like quinoa and farro, can go rancid in the pantry. They should have very little scent or be slightly sweet. If they smell musty or oily, it’s time to throw them away. The same is true for nuts. The fat in them can go rancid. The best place to store nuts is in the freezer. And cooking oils can also go rancid; smell them to check if they are okay.

A category none of us think to check but should is baking soda and powder. They will lose their “oomph” and ability to make baked goods rise after a long time in the cupboard. No one wants to go to the effort of baking a cake and have it come out flat!

Following these rules, you can help yourself cut down on food waste this year and stay healthy while doing it.  

Banner image: Erol Ahmed via Unsplash

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