Food Labels Made Simple

Understanding those tricky expiration dates

The average American wastes $2,000 worth of food a year, often by throwing away products that may not yet be past their prime. It’s no picnic to suffer through food poisoning, so it’s understandable why many of us play it safe and abide closely to the dates printed on packages.

But just what do those dates mean? And what’s the difference between the labels “use by,” “best by” and “sell by”? Here are the three most commonly used terms on packaged food and what they mean:

Use By
This is the last date consumers should eat food, mostly likely because of quality, not safety. The quality and safety of the product, however, can and likely will decrease after this date.

Sell By
This is the date by which retailers should have sold an item or removed it from the shelves. This does not imply the product is not safe to consumers after the date (roughly 1/3 of a product’s shelf life remains at this point).

Best By
The vaguest of the three, this date is simply a suggestion for consumers to enjoy the product with ideal quality.

These categories, however, are used inconsistently by many manufacturers, and none of the dates offers a 100 percent guarantee that food products are completely safe if eaten before or after those dates.

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Ideally food companies establish consistent standards for consumers, or the government may need to step in. That may not happen anytime soon, as industries want to protect the status quo and their bottom line, which means keeping products on the shelf as long as safely possible.

Meanwhile, here are a few practical tips for wasting not, wanting not, and yet keeping safe:

When in doubt, throw it out. Yes, it still smells okay… sort of. But if you’re worried or have doubts, trust your gut so that you won’t be jeopardizing your health.

Start composting for your garden. That way, tossing unused food won’t be a total waste.

Be smart about buying the produce manager’s specials. This is a great way to increase your fruit and veggie intake without breaking the bank. But remember that saving a few pennies here and there is never worth sacrificing your health.

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