Don’t let expiration dates confuse you—or allow your favorite snack to go to waste.

By Samantha Zabell
Updated April 17, 2015
Credit: Jose Luis Pelaez/Getty Images

Before you toss anything in your refrigerator—examine the label. Are you throwing it out because it’s past the use-by date or the sell-by date?

These terms on your favorite foods often cause confusion in the grocery store, and you might be wasting perfectly good food because you don’t understand the terminology. The three different dates—“use-by,” “sell-by,” and “best-by”—have different implications for your groceries. A representative at the Institute of Food Technologists released a statement to clarify what each means so you can shop smarter and waste less.

Use-By: This is the date by which you should eat the food. But just because it’s a day or two past the use-by date doesn’t mean that consuming it will make you sick, although quality and safety do decline after this time.

Sell-By: If you’re at the grocery store, and the very last unit of your favorite yogurt has that day’s sell-by date, you can still buy it. This is a date for retailers, and helps them determine how long an item should remain on the shelf. According to the IFT, “one-third of a food’s shelf-life remains after the sell-by date for the consumer to use at home.”

Best-By: This is a quality assurance date, and serves as a “suggestion” for when you should eat the item to ensure that it’s at its peak.

Still concerned your food has gone bad? Consult our handy food storage guide, and find out how long (almost) everything lasts in the fridge, freezer, and pantry.