Because it’s never a good time to unnecessarily toss pantry staples.

By Betty Gold
February 18, 2021

Expiration dates are one of the most problematic parts of the growing issue our nation faces with food waste. Safety always comes first, but it's important to acknowledge that America voluntarily throws away over a third of its food every year. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) that adds up to over $160 billion wasted annually.

How do expiration dates play into this, you ask? Because date labels like Sell-By or Use-By are not federally regulated, and should therefore always be taken with a grain of salt. "Confusion over the meaning of dates applied to food products can result in consumers discarding wholesome food," says the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) on its website. "In an effort to reduce food waste, it is important that consumers understand that the dates applied to food are for quality and not for safety. Food products are safe to consume past the date on the label, and regardless of the date, consumers should evaluate the quality of the food product prior to its consumption." The exception is for infant formula and some baby food, which do have mandated expiration dates for safety purposes.

As a brief primer, read over the list of the main types of expiration dates and their real meanings below, according to the FSIS.

  • A "Best if Used By/Before" date indicates when a product will be of best flavor or quality. It is not a purchase or safety date.
  • A "Sell-By" date tells the store how long to display the product for sale for inventory management. It is not a safety date.
  • A “Use-By" date is the last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality. It is not a safety date, except for when used on infant formula as described below.
  • “Freeze-By” date indicates when a product should be frozen to maintain peak quality. It is not a purchase or safety date.

What is key to knowing whether a food or beverage is safe to eat is to inspect for signs of spoilage. Your nose knows: "Spoiled foods will develop an off odor, flavor, or texture due to naturally occurring spoilage bacteria. If a food has developed such spoilage characteristics, it should not be eaten," states the FSIS.

So…where do we go from here? We concede the fact that there are a select number of foods that don't really go bad for ages, if ever. Sure, they might not taste or appear brand new, but as long as you're storing these pantry staples under the right conditions (i.e., avoiding heat and direct sunlight), you should be able to keep them for a very long time.

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Unopened, commercially bottled water will keep indefinitely, though the taste may be impacted by storage conditions (including that else is stored around it, where it is stored, and sunlight exposure).

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When stored in the pantry in a dark, dry, cool place, sugar won’t spoil…ever. But for the best quality, use it within two years.

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According to the FSIS, canned foods with a low acid content, like meat, beans, peas, soups, or vegetables (or our favorite, canned tuna), will keep anywhere from two to five years. High-acid canned goods like tomato sauce and canned fruit will keep up to 18 months. For optimal longevity, the FSIS says: “Store canned foods and other shelf stable products in a cool, dry place. Never put them above or beside the stove, under the sink, in a damp garage or basement, or any place exposed to high or low temperature extremes. Temperatures below 85 °F are best. Check your pantry every few weeks and use canned goods you have had on hand for a while. Don't purchase bulging, rusted, leaking, or deeply dented cans.” Additional information on food canning and the handling of canned foods may be found here.

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Unopened, this magic elixir will keep for three years (!) or longer in the pantry. Once it’s opened, keep it in the fridge and it’ll last almost as long.

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According to the FSIS, you can keep these pantry staples for up to two years.

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Easily one of the most underrated foods, dried beans—like black, cannellini, pinto, or Great Northern—are shelf-stable for up to two years.

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You’ve got two years to use up your honey bear—just make sure to keep it in a cool, dark place or it might crystalize. If it does crystalize, though, it’s totally safe to eat (and delicious). Here are a few ways you can still use it.

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Believe it or not, that giant jug of unopened canola oil sitting in your pantry will stay fresh for two years in a cool, dry place. Store it in the fridge and it’ll keep for longer.



Great news: Your favorite afternoon nosh will keep in the pantry for between a year and two years—so go ahead and buy the massive Costco bulk bag. To keep dried fruit even longer, store it in the freezer.

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Indeed, your favorite beverage (after wine, of course) will last up to three years in the pantry if left unopened. Once the box is opened, however, the bags will last just 18 months.

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These pint-sized plant-based protein powerhouses will both keep for a year. Unopened packages of hemp seeds are fine in the pantry, but for optimal freshness, keep your chia in an airtight container in the fridge.