A healthy living blog from Marshfield Clinic Health System

Do food expiration dates matter?

Woman grocery shopping - Do food expiration dates matter?

Food that has reached its use-by or best-by date is probably still safe to eat, but it’s no longer at its peak freshness.

Are you someone who tosses food in the trash the day it expires, or do you let it hang out in your refrigerator so long that you need to check for mold before eating?

The best way to get the most out of your food and avoid getting sick lies somewhere in between.

“Eating food after the date marked on the package doesn’t guarantee you’re going to get sick,” said Samantha Bulgrin, a Marshfield Clinic Health System registered dietitian.

What are best-by, use-by and sell-by dates?

A clear understanding of food dating may ease your fears.

Best-by and use-by dates tell consumers when food is no longer fresh. Quality starts to decline after the date marked on the package, but the food isn’t immediately unsafe to eat.

Sell-by dates are stocking tools stores use to make sure food is sold while it’s still fresh. Food isn’t spoiled or unsafe after the sell-by date.

Different foods have different rules

It’s safe to eat foods after the best-by or use-by date, but your risk of getting sick increases the longer you go past the date,” Bulgrin said.

How long can you wait before tossing food? It depends on what you’re eating.

Meat, poultry and seafood should be cooked or frozen within a few days. Their quality deteriorates quickly, and microorganisms that make you sick start to multiply. Milk and other dairy products can last five days to a week after the use-by date. Eggs usually are good for a few weeks. Canned food and frozen food can last months to years after the date marked on the package.

Use your senses as well as the package dates to guide you. Throw out food if it smells or tastes bad, the texture has changed, or it has a lot of freezer burn.

Your senses are especially important for fresh produce, which isn’t marked with a freshness date.

“If you don’t know how long food has been in the refrigerator, toss it,” Bulgrin added.

Food storage and handling matters

Handling and storing food properly keeps it safe and fresh longer. Clean your hands and food prep surfaces well before handling food.

Keep cold food cold. Don’t go back and forth between temperatures, such as thawing and re-freezing meat. Keep canned foods in a cold, dark place. Their quality starts to deteriorate faster in heat and sunlight. A produce storage guide can help you figure out where to store fruits and veggies and how long they normally last.

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