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But did you smell it first? How to decipher date labels

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When we look at food waste in our homes, the two main causes of waste are buying and cooking more food than we can finish, and uncertainty over what foods are still good to eat. While the first one is firmly in our control, the latter is tricky. 

One of the top reasons people end up unintentionally wasting good food is confusion over how to read date labels printed on food packaging. Out of our earnest and understandable concern about food safety, we waste food as a defensive measure. But did you know that unless they appear on infant formula, date labels are estimates of food quality and not food safety? Plus, they’re an extremely flawed way to judge which foods are still good to eat, and confusion around what they mean (and don’t mean) causes hundreds of thousands of tons of unnecessary food waste every year.

To solve this problem, we don’t necessarily need new dates or technology, we just need to find ways to become empowered eaters who trust their senses! To help you bridge the gap and take control of waste in your kitchen, we’re sharing some helpful wisdom for making the call on what to eat and what to toss. Below are some common-sense ways to know if your favorite groceries are still good to eat.

In the fridge

Eggs

If stored properly, eggs will last for 3–5 weeks after you buy them. Don’t store eggs in the door of your fridge, since this area is too warm. To easily tell if your eggs are still fresh, try placing one in a bowl of cold water. If the egg sinks, it’s still fresh. If it floats, the batch is too old and should be composted.

Milk

Milk can last for about a week after the “sell by” date. If you’re unsure if it’s still good to drink, pour a small amount into a glass and smell it. If the milk has changed color, is clumpy, or smells off, dump it out. Don’t store milk in the door of your refrigerator, since it’s too warm there.

Cheese

Cheeses are absolutely good past their expiration dates. With cheese, the best way to know if it’s still good is to use your eyes. If it has started to grow mold, you can usually just cut around the mold and eat the rest of the cheese.

Yogurt

Yogurt can last for 1–2 weeks past its printed expiration date in the fridge. Opened yogurt will last for a week or so.

Juice

Fruit juice lasts longer than vegetable juice. Juice that’s gone bad will smell sour.

Meat

The “use by” or freeze by” dates on animal proteins should be taken more seriously than other types of food. Raw meat lasts for a few days if stored in the fridge. Freeze it if you can’t use it within a couple of days.

Deli meat is a more risky food due to the potential for listeria, so you should pay attention to the printed expiration dates on sandwich meats. If it smells odd or looks slimy, throw it away.

Pantry staples

Canned goods

Canned goods like beans are good for years after the “best by” dates. Acidic items like tomatoes only last for about a year and a half. To ensure that canned goods stay fresh longer, store them in a cool, dry place.

Sliced bread

Sliced bread lasts for 5–7 days past the expiration date in the pantry but will dry out over time. Stale bread can be repurposed into homemade croutons or breadcrumbs. Whole loaves of bread last longer than pre-sliced bread. Do not put bread in the refrigerator, since this environment will actually dry it out faster. It’s best to freeze bread if you cannot finish it.

Honey 

Honey is good indefinitely. It will naturally crystallize over time. If this texture is an issue for you, just gently heat the jar of honey in a bowl of warm water and it will return to a liquid.

Pasta

Dried pasta is good for 1–2 years after its expiration date. It will last longer if you store it in a container that seals tightly and keeps air out.

The takeaway: your nose knows

Always remember that date labels are one of many types of information to take into consideration when deciding if something is still good to eat. There’s no need to disregard them entirely, but don’t ignore your other senses based on what a date label says either. Use all of the information you have access to before making a decision about what to eat. When in doubt, remember that your nose knows! Your body has millions of years of evolution on its side when it comes to knowing if something is safe to eat or not. If something looks, smells, or tastes off, trust your gut and throw it away. If it looks, smells, and tastes normal, use your best judgment, and enjoy it so it doesn’t go to waste! By using your senses and some common sense, you can help reduce food waste and build a better food system for everyone.

A note on botulism

While rare, botulism is always a risk with canned foods, especially ones with low acidity like green beans, asparagus, or corn. Botulism in food happens most frequently in home-canned food since the spores thrive in low-oxygen environments, so it pays to take precautionary steps. Things like properly pressure canning your food and refrigerating garlic and oil mixtures promptly will help minimize your risk. If your store-bought cans are deeply dented, rusted, or bulging, these are all warning signs that the can may be compromised and the contents should be thrown out.

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