“Sell By,” “Use By,” “Best By," Oh My! What Do Food Expiration Terms Really Mean?

“Sell By,” “Use By,” “Best By," Oh My! What Do Food Expiration Terms Really Mean?

The current lack of transparency is a major contributor to food waste — so know your stuff.

By Jennifer Merritt

If you’ve ever chucked a box of cereal or tossed a half-used carton of milk because it was one day past its “sell by” date, then congratulations — you are effectively killing the planet and adding to the 133 billion pounds of food that are wasted in the U.S. each year. (Globally, the figure rises to 1.3 billion tons, FYI.) 

“The impacts are huge,” says Nell Frye, senior manager for sustainability and corporate responsibility field support at Sodexo, a company dedicated to quality of life services. “When you put food in a landfill, before it’s capped, it rots and causes a ton of methane. Plus, all that food could feed people who go to bed at night and don’t know where their next meal is coming from.”

But don’t worry — it’s not your fault; it’s food manufacturers’. Terms such as “use by,” “sell by,” and “best used by” are largely stamped on products to ensure you consume them at their height of taste. “After a certain date, a product might not taste the same, which would lessen the chances of you going back and buying the product,” says Ha Nguyen, a registered dietician and nutritionist based out of Philadelphia. “Many people don’t know that these terms are unregulated — it’s definitely a misconception.”

So does that mean you can ignore such terms and eat expired food with abandon? Not quite. (Heck, even Twinkies reportedly only have a shelf life of 25 days.) Here’s what you need to know about these food terms, plus strategies on how you can rescue your food from feeding yet another landfill.

First, Understand What These Terms Mean

Some food groups and even companies like Amazon are pushing for regulated, easier-to-understand expiration terms, but until that happens, it’s best to pay attention right now: “‘Sell by’ generally means you have a few days after that date to consume the product,” explains Monica Auslander Moreno, an adjunct professor at the University of Miami and dietitian to the Miami Marlins. “‘Best by’ means that the taste, usually not the safety, will be compromised. ‘Use by’ is true — use it or throw it out.”

She adds that eggs stay fresh up to three weeks past their printed date. (“A good test is if a raw egg floats to the top of a bowl of water, it’s gone bad,” she says.) However, products like honey, white vinegar, sugar, mustard, and maple syrup never expire when stored properly. (“You could eat honey from the tombs of Egypt.”) The only term you should rigorously adhere to are the ones that say, “once opened, use within X amount of days.”

“Dairy products are especially prone to rancidity,” Moreno says. “Same goes for raw nut butters.”

Of course, if you are immunocompromised or live with someone who is, it’s best to err on the side of caution, but otherwise, Moreno advises using the good ol’ sniff test. “If it looks or smells off, it probably is,” she says.

Strategies to Stop Wasting Food

Now that you know which dates you can stretch and which ones you can’t, it’s important to learn how to curb what you consume — and we don’t just mean in your belly. “From my research, about one third of all food is being thrown away, whether that’s due to over-purchasing or from a restaurant,” says Sodexo’s Frye, who has spent her entire career studying this stuff. “Thirty percent comes from the home, and that adds up to about $1,500 a year.”

*Record scratch.*

Here’s how you can save food and money:

Don’t buy food too far ahead. Yes, it’s a pain to go to the grocery more than once a week, but the trek is all but guaranteed to save you money in the long run. “This way, you’re only buying what you truly need,” Frye says.

And if you’ve overbought? The freezer is your friend. “Freeze meats on the day it expires and it will still be perfectly fine,” Nguyen says. “Even berries that have gotten a little mushy can be thrown in the freezer and later used in smoothies.”

Moreno adds that you can cut moldy parts off of cheeses, easily eat a brown avocado, and turn too-ripe bananas into the best-tasting banana bread. (Just ask Chrissy Teigen!)

Budget, and meal plan. No, it’s not just a strategy for suburban stay-at-home moms. “Both are a great way to cut food waste,” Frye says. “Remember that every piece of food you throw away is a dollar you throw away, too.”

Get some skills. “Some of us don’t know how to cook whole foods or reuse food the way our grandparents did,” Frye says, adding that the book Waste-free Kitchen Handbook by Dana Gunders is a good place to start.

Finally, just pay attention. “Once you start examining your behaviors, you start seeing opportunities to cut back,” Frye says. “It can be frustrating to change your habits around food, but all are important steps that lead to change.”

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