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A Closer Look: Expiration Dates Explained

Not sure what to make of the date printed on that tub of yogurt? Questioning the freshness of those week-old farmer's market eggs? Don't fret. Follow the tips below to understand expiration once and for all.

Here's some food for thought: Expiration dates refer to quality and freshness of food, not safety. (Yep, that's a shocker!) So, even if a food item passes its expiration date, that item could technically still be safe to eat.

We dug a little deeper to find out what different types of "expiration" dates really indicate, and if they can be useful for consumers.

Lawless Labels—The Need-to-Know ///

Expiration dates on food and drink products are not required or regulated by Federal administrators, with the exception of infant formula. Those mysterious dates printed on food containers telling us when to purchase, eat, or throw out that tub of yogurt by are actually decided by each individual manufacturer.

To complicate things even more, the printed numbers can mean multiple things, and there's no continuity between types of products. So we've spelled it out for you with help from the USDA:

  • "Sell-By." This number is for the store, letting employers know how long a certain product can stay on the shelf. You should buy the food item before this date passes to ensure it's fresh.
  • "Best if Used Before/By." This date helps specify when a product is at its peak freshness. It does not indicate the safety of the item. Buy and use before this date for best quality.
  • "Use-By." These dates indicate when a product will start deteriorating in quality and flavor. (Again, it's not a safety guide!) Again, it's best to buy and use products before this date for best quality, but consuming the product a few days late won't kill ya.
  • Closed or coded dates. These are packing codes that track the product when it is being shipped. These codes are typically a series of numbers and letters that indicate dates and times the container was filled, and places of manufacture. (They look something like this: 045B97 April 11, 2008.) They should not be interpreted as "use-by" dates.

Unfortunately, there's no predetermined number of days that determine how long certain foods stay edible. However, the USDA recommends following the "Use-By" date on food packages just to stay on the safe side.

If there's no date to follow, here are a few key recommended storage timelines:

Food Rules—Your Action Plan ///

We can't just go by the numbers and forgo properly storing food. (That carton of milk will go bad overnight on the kitchen counter regardless of its expiration date!) Food spoilage depends just as much on storing conditions as it does time on the shelf. So take into account these tips to help keep food fresh and safe.

  • Set it right. Make sure the fridge is set at or below 40 and the freezer is set at 0 degrees Fahrenheit. If your cooling dial doesn't have exact temperatures noted, place a thermometer in the center of the refrigerator overnight for an accurate reading.
  • Unpack promptly. After you get back from the grocery store, refrigerate or freeze perishables or pre-cooked foods within two hours to avoid spoiling.
  • Eat it or freeze it. Food safety experts suggest consumers eat or freeze meat within two days of purchasing. The reason? Raw meat is typically kept around 30 degrees Fahrenheit in the store, while refrigerators at home are typically set around 40 degrees (so veggies won't freeze)!
  • Don't let it linger. Don't eat sliced produce, meat, poultry, and eggs if they've been left out for more than two hours. The same goes for milk—while it may last for five days past its sell-by date in the fridge, it will quickly spoil if it's not kept cold. And remember! Whole cooked dishes and leftovers can go bad too, so it's best to chuck that leftover chinese after three or four days in the fridge.
  • Trust your judgment. Make sure to use expiration dates as a guide rather than relying solely on the numbers. It's ultimately up to us to figure out when food is no longer fresh and edible. (Yep, that means giving those week-old cold cuts a good whiff.)

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DoubleChub

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DoubleChub

lol at 3-5 days for eggs in the fridge.. WHAT? lol brb i eat eggs that are 3 weeks old all the time

Aug 13, 2013 5:24pm | report
 
KthxHibye

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KthxHibye

Yeah reading that about eggs made me laugh... Is the fridge at the store a magical one? Most the eggs arent even gonna make it to the store in 3 days after coming out of the chickens *** lol

Aug 14, 2013 1:17am | report
Sauloo

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Sauloo

I don't know if they changed later, but the image says 3-5 weeks for eggs...

Aug 14, 2013 10:45am | report
thebravefencer

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thebravefencer

The numbers here are inaccurate, even the FDA admits that the freezing point can extend the life of many of these foods far further than that. I think you guys need to separate this into the below freezer temps and fridge temps, because otherwise people will quickly misunderstand and throw away a great deal of good food. I know from personal experience many restaraunts following FDA standards freeze meat for weeks, not 3-5 days, that's just not practical.

Aug 13, 2013 6:49pm | report
 
tapeshkhanna

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tapeshkhanna

Frozen Cooked/Raw Non-Veg lasts over a month without any issues. I have kept a deep freezer and have been doing so for many years. Raw eggs easily last 15 odd days.

Aug 13, 2013 10:05pm | report
 
KthxHibye

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KthxHibye

Bread 2-3 days... LOL

Aug 14, 2013 1:17am | report
 
Mudvayne24

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Mudvayne24

If you get bread without preservatives in it it's very possible to see a little bit of mold/decay within a few days. Usually it'll last a little bit longer, but I'd say that's possible. All of the breads at a typical supermarket usually have ingredients at the bottom that "preserve freshness" and whatnot.

Aug 14, 2013 10:03am | report
PokeTheLump

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PokeTheLump

Everything I eat goes against these so called "Food Rules."

Aug 14, 2013 7:19am | report
 
zabetak

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zabetak

I've read many useful articles in bodybuilding.com. This is definitely not one of them!! Keeping eggs for only 3 days is just for laughs. In addition I hardly ever cook raw meat in the first 2 days.

Aug 14, 2013 7:21am | report
 
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RelaxImJoking

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RelaxImJoking

I just read this and realized I have been eating expired foods almost my whole life.... I think eventually im going to die.

Aug 14, 2013 9:12am | report
 
rennbj4

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rennbj4

Don't forget the smell test!

If it smells bad, do not eat it.

Aug 14, 2013 10:57am | report
 
Davis1891

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Davis1891

Well, I'm a chef by trade, and on paper alot of this is pretty much up to date information. (Even the eggs, which I'm assuming was fixed from days to weeks.)
In the food industry, these are pretty much guidelines that have to be followed to a "t", for legal and safety/health reasons.
But for the average person(s) at home, I personally wouldn't recommend following most of that chart. You'd either end up with alot of unwarranted waste, or a freezer full of cooked meat.
This article could've just been summed up with one small sentence.
"Use common sense."

Aug 14, 2013 11:07am | report
 
XxmetallicaxX

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XxmetallicaxX

yeah uhm I don't know where youre buying your bread from but mine usually lasts a lot longer than 2-3 days after opening lol

Aug 15, 2013 4:08am | report
 
dbrown59

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dbrown59

Ah the smell test. One milk bad a week before date, next still good six days after date.

Sep 17, 2013 10:53pm | report
 
Showing 1 - 14 of 14 Comments

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