The question is, should you care?

By Betty Gold
February 14, 2020

Real talk, it can be difficult to know when foods need to be tossed and when it’s perfectly safe to salvage them. Safety comes first, of course, but America voluntarily throws away nearly 40 percent of its food every year. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, that adds up to over $160 billion wasted annually.

That being said, there are a number of foods you’re highly likely holding on to past their prime. Though expiration dates should always be taken with a grain of salt—they’re not federally regulated, after all—a “best by” or “use by” date typically tells you when the product will be at its highest quality. So whether or not some of these ingredients are still technically safe to eat, you may notice a change in their taste, color, or texture (eek). When in doubt, remember that your nose knows. If you notice a food has off odors or a strange appearance, don't eat it. But if not, we’ll let you be the judge of what to do next.

RELATED: This Is the Secret to Storing Every Type of Fruit and Vegetable So They Last Longer

1
Spices. 

Of course, your age-old coriander and cumin won’t kill you. But what they will do is completely lack flavor. This is a bummer considering that spices are meant to do the exact opposite: they’re a vehicle for expressing and elevating a food or dish's flavor profile. Spices lose flavor and potency over time, and this period is significantly shorter than we expect. Most are considered shelf-stable for about three years, but your nutmeg won’t taste anything like proper nutmeg in a fraction of that time.

To make sure your dried spices taste as fresh and lively as possible, buy whole spices over ground whenever possible. Because they have less surface area that’s exposed to oxygen—the key offender in the spice degradation game—they’ll hold on to their flavor for longer. You’ll also find fresher tasting spices at a specialty grocery or spice store versus popping into the corner deli. And because you typically only use a teensy bit at a time, avoid buying spices in bulk, or any quantity that’s greater than what you’ll need for the dish at hand.

2
Cold Cuts.

This one’s a bigger safety issue. The vacuum-sealed plastic packaging (in addition to the fact that cold cuts are often highly-processed) leads us to believe that deli ham, turkey, roast beef, and so on are okay to eat for weeks on end. But most sliced meat makers, including big brands like Boar’s Head, say your meat is only at optimal freshness for three days after purchase. It should still be safe to eat it for around a week or so, but if you notice any unpleasant odors (especially those of ammonia, vinegar, or yeast), mold, or slimy textures on your meat, discard it immediately.

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3
Garlic.

Garlic should be kept in a dry, cool, dark place in your pantry, so it’s natural that some of us forget exactly how long it’s been sitting there. Generally speaking, this is fine: a whole head of garlic, unpeeled and untouched, should last about six months. Garlic cloves—single, unpeeled—are good for three weeks, but peeled garlic cloves only last one week. And if it’s minced, it’ll start to turn in a few hours (unless you cover it in olive oil, which buys you a couple more days). If you see any little green sprouts coming out of your bulb or it feels soft, toss it: it’s going to taste dank, and the dish you use it in will follow suit.

4
Mayonnaise. 

If you still have your jar of mayo from your Fourth of July potato salad sitting in the fridge, for the love of god, throw it away (and buy a smaller bottle next summer). According to the USDA, mayonnaise is only safe to eat for two months after you open the container. This is another issue with date labeling: your mayo likely has an expiration date far off in the future, but this solely applies to an unopened jar. Saving this year’s condiment for next year’s barbecue could put all your party guests at serious risk of foodborne illness.

5
Liquid Eggs/Egg Substitutes.

Unopened, liquid eggs and egg substitutes (like Egg Beaters) typically last for months. But if you break the seal for breakfast on Monday, expect them to go bad by Wednesday, Thursday at best. According to Foodsafety.gov, opened containers of liquid eggs are best when used in three days and shouldn’t be frozen.

6
Bread.

You’re probably eating your bread after the loaf’s expiration date has passed, and we’re (generally) fine with that. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. (But if you notice and off-odors or mold spots, throw it away immediately.) If your bread is starting to go stale, there are plenty of delicious ways you can use it—or, if you want to extend its shelf life, packaged bread will stay fresh for three months or longer in the freezer.

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