Sell by dates aren’t the same as expiration dates.
This article originally appeared on Money.
This weekend I was pouring a little half-and-half into my cup of coffee (no, not Folgers) when I noticed something extremely disturbing: the creamer was 34 days beyond the expiration date printed on the carton top.
Yes, 34 days. I know.
Of course, the first thought that immediately crossed my mind was: You idiot!
Considering that I was on my third cup of the day, the next thought that popped into my head was: Maybe I should call 9-1-1.
Then again, maybe not.
Once I regained my composure, I realized that this was the same “expired” half-and-half I had been pouring into my coffee for over a month without any repercussions.
In fact, upon further reflection, my first two cups of coffee that morning tasted absolutely delicious. I certainly noticed no sign of curdling when I poured the half-and-half into my coffee either.
Even so, I still wasn’t convinced my creamer was good.
So I opened the carton back up and took a sniff; the half-and-half still smelled fresh.
Then I took a taste; it tasted almost as fresh as the day I bought it on, um, well … let me take an action item and get back to you on that.
So what’s going on here? I always figured most companies probably built a little safety margin into their expiration dates to protect dummies like me — but 34 days?
It made me wonder just how many people are wasting their hard-earned money tossing out perfectly good food because they take expiration dates at face value.
An Expiration Date Primer
According to StillTasty, a website food-storage guide, not all expiration dates in the US are created equally.
It turns out that the only products that should always be eaten before the date on a label are the ones with an “Expires on” mark. Otherwise, it becomes a judgment call.
For example, perishables have “Sell by” dates that only indicate how long a store can keep a particular product on the shelf. StillTasty notes that even if you buy ground beef on the “Sell by” expiration date, you can safely store it in a refrigerator for up to two days.
Properly-stored pasteurized milk typically lasts five to seven days after the date on the carton. Even better, if the product is ultra-pasteurized, it can last much longer than that; a quick check of the label verified that’s why my half-and-half lasted as long as it did.
Then there are “Use by,” “Best if used by,” “Best by,” and “Best before” dates, which are not safety dates at all. Instead, they are quality dates US manufacturers voluntarily provide for shelf-stable items such as ketchup and mustard to indicate when consumers may begin to notice otherwise harmless changes in flavor, color or texture.
Some products, like canned fruits and vegetables can survive long past their listed dates; in fact, most can last as long as five years with no loss of flavor or nutritional value if properly stored — and 20 years or longer with only some degradation. That being said, canned items like pineapple and tomatoes have shorter lifespans because their acidity tends to compromise the cans over time.
Others, like diet cola begin degrade relatively quickly if they’re still on the shelf beyond their recommended expiration date.
Some products can last almost indefinitely under the right conditions. These so-called “sturdy staples” include honey, rice, hard liquor, maple syrup, distilled white vinegar, cornstarch, salt, sugar, and non-artificial pure vanilla extract.
Of course, fresh conventional and organic fruits and vegetables have no expiration dates at all. But there are tricks you can use to extend their shelf life. For example, StillTasty recommends storing bananas at room temperature until they become ripe, and then putting them in the refrigerator to extend their shelf life. Just don’t panic when you notice the refrigerated banana skins turning black; the fruit will remain unaffected.
I love homegrown tomatoes. They’ll reach their maximum flavor and juiciness if you keep them out of the refrigerator until they are fully ripened. And StillTasty notes that you can then extend their shelf life an additional few days by placing them in a plastic bag and refrigerating them.
The Bottom Line
Ultimately, there are many factors that determine how long products will remain fresh and safe to eat including location and storage temperature — colder storage temps and dry locations usually prolong product freshness.
Remember: most product expiration dates are only meant to be guidelines. So next time, instead of taking those expiration dates literally, let your senses be your guide. You may just avoid throwing away perfectly good food — and save a little money too.