Understanding expiration dates so you can toss less and save money

There are two types of people in this world…

People who toss food the second that “best by” date hits. And people who pick the mold off bread and proclaim, “See, it’s still good!” with the enthusiasm of a kid on Christmas.

Personally, I fall into the first category. Maybe you’re the same way…

As the date on your food creeps closer, your faith in its safety takes a dive. You sniff it. You examine it for funky moldy growths. And then, ultimately, you throw it away.

But here’s the thing… the dates on your food aren’t always what they seem. Not all of them have the same meaning. And sometimes they’re more flexible than you’d imagine…

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The confusing world of expiration date phrasing

A new study from researchers at Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future (CLF) found that a lot of misunderstandings surround expiration dates… and these misunderstandings lead to wasted food and sometimes dangerous decisions.

First off, researchers found that most people don’t understand what different types of expiration dates mean (something I was guilty of until recently).

Here’s an example:

Do you know the difference between “Expires On,” “Use By” and “Best If Used By”?

I didn’t. And a lot of people were right there with me.

There are more than 10 (?!?!) different phrases used to relay expiration date information on food. But most people (84 percent) just discard food on the package date no matter which one of these phrases is used. The thing is, each phrase has a different meaning…

“Best If Used By,” for example, means that a food may not taste quite as good after that date… but it’s still safe to eat. So, if you’re throwing away food on the “Best If Used By” date, you’re throwing away money.

“Sell By” has a similar meaning. The food may not be as fresh after that date, but it should still be safe to eat.

“Use By,” on the other hand, means a food is highly perishable. You should throw away foods with this label on the package date. The same goes for food with the label “Expires On.”

Related: Sell-by, use-by and best-by dates: What about eat by?

Now, once you know the meanings, all these labels kind of make sense. But unless food manufacturers communicate these differences, it’s easy to assume they all mean the same thing. That’s why a lot of good food gets thrown away.

Luckily, the food industry is working to streamline the expiration date system. The Grocery Manufacturers Association and the Food Marketing Institute, for example, now encourage all members to use only two phrases: “Use By” and “Best If Used By.”

The foods that really need to go when the package date hits…

Now, maybe you’re one of those people who pick mold off bread, and you think people (like me) who throw food away as soon as that package date hits are crazy. But if you can relate to my natural suspicion (and confusion) when it comes to expiring food at all, then hopefully this information helped you.

You should also know that there are certain types of food that are more important to discard by package dates than others. Prepared foods, deli meats, and soft cheeses, for example, have a high risk of listeria contamination. But this latest study found that people rarely throw out soft cheeses by the package date. So, many of us are engaging in risky expiration date behavior without even realizing it.

Interestingly enough, researchers say raw chicken can be used past the package date as long as you cook it thoroughly (and it’s not obviously bad… rotten chicken has a very distinct smell). Breakfast cereal and canned goods are okay to eat past the package date too, even though most people throw them away.

This is all food for thought, to say the least! Hopefully, these tips will help you waste less (food and money) while staying safe in the future.


  1. Misunderstanding food date labels linked with higher food discards — MedicalXpress
  2. Misunderstood food date labels and reported food discards: A survey of U.S. consumer attitudes and behaviorsWaste Management
  3. What’s the difference between sell by and use by? Food industry to clarify terms — Digital Trends
  4. For Food Manufacturers, ‘Sell By’ Labels May Have Reached Their Expiration Date — The Salt
Jenny Smiechowski

By Jenny Smiechowski

Jenny Smiechowski is a Chicago-based freelance writer who specializes in health, nutrition and the environment. Her work has appeared in online and print publications like Chicagoland Gardening magazine, Organic Lifestyle Magazine, BetterLife Magazine, TheFix.com, Hybridcars.com and Seedstock.com.