"Best By" vs. Common Sense: Understanding Food Expiration Dates | Seventh Generation
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"Best By" vs. Common Sense: Understanding Food Expiration Dates

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There's been a lot in the news lately about expiration dates on food, the most shocking of which comes from the Harvard Food Law and Policy Center reporting that $165 billion dollars worth of food is WASTED each year when people throw away food that's still good because the "Best By" date has come and gone. Expiration dates on food were never, nor are they presently, meant to be an indication of food safety, but rather when the food is at its peak quality and taste. The only foods required by the government to have an expiration date are baby food and baby formula. All other dates are voluntary, the result of consumers requesting this information from food manufactures. So whatever did our grandparents do before they had a date to tell them whether their food was still good? Apparently they used that obscure, dwindling ability referred to as "common sense."

Milk and eggs are the most frequently—and needlessly—thrown away due to their "best by" dates, even though eggs are still good 2-3 weeks later, provided they've been kept cold enough. Refrigerators should be set between 35 and 38 degrees, and milk and eggs should not be stored on the door, even though there are handy spaces provided for them there. Food on the door can't maintain a constant temperature, due to frequent opening. Milk should be kept on the back wall of the refrigerator, and eggs near the back. (Too close to the wall and eggs may freeze.) When to tell if the milk has gone bad? Here's the common sense part: smell it. If you turn away with an "UGH!" don't drink it. Although, on a hunch, I wondered if the milk I had smelled badly—not because of the milk—but because of the container. Sure enough, when I poured the milk into a glass, it smelled absolutely fine. Yes, I drank it, and lived to tell the tale, without so much as a stomachache.

Obviously, if the tuna casserole you made last week looks more like a science experiment—covered in blue fuzz—don't eat it. But you can cut mold off cheese, and still eat the good part with no ill effects. Dry food like pasta, rice and beans can be kept almost indefinitely as long as it's in an airtight container. Even if cereal or crackers are stale, they're not going to hurt you if eaten. The exception to the somewhat coy "Best by" is the "Use by" date, usually found on meat and poultry. This is one that you want to follow. Even a devil-may-care eater doesn't want to take chances with spoiled meat. As for fish—trust me—you don't need a date to tell you when it's gone bad.

(Foodies look away) Spices also have a "best by" date, and while they won't hurt you if their "best" days were two Thanksgivings ago, they've probably lost some of their flavor. But spices can be expensive, so if they smell (approximately) like they're supposed to, keep them. If they smell vaguely like straw, it's time to buy some new ones.

SJ Wilson
SJ Wilson has been writing novels for many years, including the recently published, The Soul of Fenway. She loves spending time with her family, especially at the beach. Her hobbies include genealogy, photography, American history, and baseball.


Jude113 picture
For optimal freshness make sure things are properly stored. Many things that one doesn't go through quickly (think baking supplies) should be refrigerated or frozen. Whole grains, whole wheat/grain flours and nuts should be refrigerated or frozen to avoid rancidity. Also, walnut oil should be refrigerated to avoid rancidity. Canola and soy (aka vegetable) oil, become rancid upon processing, so I'd suggest ditching those and switching to coconut oil, but that's a whole other topic. For now, if you are buying them, refrigerate them. You can also freeze rarely used spices to preserve their freshness. Oh, and I totally disagree with the advice on spices. Penzy's has a saying, "Good spices don't go bad, they simply fade away". I would suggest assessing what you need and buying frequently used herbs and spices in quantities that you will use for the year. Penzy's spices are better quality and often more affordable then those sold in the grocery store and I am able to buy the size I need for the year. For instance I buy cinnamon in bulk, but cloves in the smallest size jar. One can also buy spices whole(which last much longer), like nutmeg and grate them as needed. Since I cook most everything from scratch, proper seasoning is very important. I do make exceptions for a few rarely used spices like ginger and replace them every other year.