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Food Expiration Dates
How Long is Food Safe to Eat? (Part 2 of 3)

When does this can expire?
When does this can expire?

There is an enormous amount of confusion when it comes to deciding what foods are OK to eat and what's spoiled. We tend to throw away things that are still good and trash products with expiration labels we don't understand.

Save your money and quit filling up trash cans. Here's a simple lesson on what those different labels REALLY mean.

SELL BY date isn't for you. That's how long a food company wants the store to display the product. Because there are no legal requirements for SELL BY dates, it's not directly tied to a products freshness or viability.

BEST IF USED BY or USE BEFORE is the date you should use the food before the quality or flavor of the food begins to diminish. Neither of those mean the food is expired, they just mean the flavor may not be as strong.

USE BY can be considered the same as an expiration date and generally food should not be used or consumed after that date.

There are very few products with strict expiration dates, but infant formula and baby foods are two that do. Those are set by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration so the food is guaranteed it's nutritional value. Older and expired baby food or infant formula may also form lumps that can clog plastic nipples.

Many canned foods don't have expiration dates on them, making it difficult to tell if they're still good. Manufacturers typically claim canned goods won't spoil for at least two years, provided they're stored properly. However, some cans can sit in warehouses or on store shelves for months, so you may not know how old it truly is.

The University of Minnesota recommends that if a can does NOT have an expiration date, that you write one on it. Keep a sharpie pen in your kitchen and write a date one year from the day you purchased that can on the top. If you don't use it in a year, you'll know you probably shouldn't be buying that product in the future and it's time to make room for things you do eat.

Store the cans below 75 degrees Fahrenheit. Canned goods may still be OK after a year, but over time there is a steady loss of vitamins. If you see rust or bulging on a can, throw it out. That can indicate it's spoiled or contaminated.

Most people think pantry items last forever. Flour, dried fruit, grains and baking supplies are pretty hardy, but some may last as little as a few weeks if opened. In some climates they may also be exposed to excess moisture or the attack of bugs. These require a two-step approach.

Store all your existing pantry items in clear, sealable containers. This can help prevent mold and unwanted critters. When you bring new stuff home, don't just pour the new over the old. You might be mixing expired product with fresh. Take the new product and put it in sealable storage. Once you've used up the old product, you can clean out the container and then pour the new product in it.

Any time you refill a container, put an expiration date on it. I use cheap sticky notes and write the product name (like flour) and the expiration date. Then I put that on the top of the container.

Similar care should be taken with items you put in the refrigerator and freezer. For example, move vegetables into clear containers, lined with a paper towel. Produce will stay fresher longer that way than if it's kept in the plastic bags from the store.

When storing mushrooms, you should take them out of those plastic containers and put them in paper bags. The paper absorbs the moisture that evaporates from the mushrooms and they stay crisp.

To help you with dozens of other food storage and safety tips, I've created free downloadable sheets. They tell you how long things can stay in the refrigerator, freezer and pantry. Print them out for quick reference.

Cold Food Storage Chart Pantry Food Storage Chart
Cold Food Storage Chart Pantry Food Storage Chart

For more information, visit the United States Government website: FoodSafety.gov Food Safety Charts.

There's also a great website with detailed food safety information at: Still Tasty - Your Ultimate Shelf Life Guide.

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