Go look around your kitchen right now and I'll bet you find at least 3-5 different things with some form of expiration date on them. Federal guidelines only require expiration dates on baby formula. Despite that, most of the stuff we buy at a grocery store has some kind of date on it. It seems official enough, and most people try their best to either use up the product by the time that date rolls around, or throw it out. But have you ever stopped to think about what those dates really mean?
As I said earlier, the vast majority of things on store shelves aren't required by law to have any kind of date on them. As this quick and simple video by the Mayo Clinic shows, there are some subtle differences between the exact meanings of expiration, sell by, and use by dates. In most cases, the dates are simply a manufacturer's best guess as to when that product will be at peak freshness.
Expiration dates sound helpful in theory, but they can actually be kind of damaging too. Think about it, if manufacturers can set their own expiration dates, it would be in their best interests to underestimate that window of freshness so that you'll be back to buy some more a lot sooner. It's estimated that nearly 40% of the food produced in the United States gets wasted, even though it's perfectly edible. Unrealistic aesthetic standards and fear of expiration dates lead to a lot of good food being tossed into landfills, despite the fact that nearly 48 million Americans (including over 15 million children) are food-insecure.
In many cases, food that is stored properly at the right temperatures can last well past its expiration date. In my personal experience, having spent enough time in the kitchen to recognize freshness, I usually use my nose as a better indicator of whether it's time to toss something. Use your best judgment, but err on the side of caution - smell before tasting, and eat a very, very tiny amount only if the smell is totally inconclusive. If there's any hint of funk, toss it.
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H/T: Mayo Clinic