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04.15.20

Understanding Expiration Dates (And What to Do With Aging Produce)

Author: Apeel Team

According to Project Drawdown, food waste is the number one contributor to climate change. Globally, ⅓ of all food produced is lost or wasted (FAO 2011), and in the United States, a large chunk of the waste happens in our homes (ReFED). Additionally, 20% of the food wasted in our homes is attributed to misinformation or confusion over “expiration” dates (WRAP). 

In many cases, food that is perfectly safe to consume is thrown out because of the date on its label, with 42% of consumers believing “use by” or “best by” dates indicate when a product is no longer safe to eat and 84% of consumers throw food out when it’s close to the package date, at least occasionally (Neff, et al). 

For some types of foods, expiration dates are important and are intended to be an indicator of the date by which the products may be safely consumed, including infant formula and ready-to-eat foods, such as deli meats and prepared sandwiches.

However, for other food groups, dates are often simply an indication of when a product’s quality (e.g., taste, texture, color) can no longer be guaranteed. In these cases, food manufacturers use testing to determine the appropriate date that should be set.

Food Label Definitions According to the USDA

Each country may have their own guidelines for how dates are defined and used by national law. Below is a sample of guidance provided by the USDA.

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“Best if Used By/Before”

This indicates when a product will be its best flavor or quality. It is not a purchase or safety date (USDA).

“Sell-By”

This informs the store of the length of time to display the product for sale for inventory purposes. It is not a safety date (USDA).

“Use-By”

This displays the last date recommended to use the product at its peak quality. It is not a safety date, except for when it is used for infant formula (USDA).

Wait...they’re not safety dates?!

The dating system of our food is typically provided by manufacturers to help consumers and retailers decide when food is at its best quality (USDA). As the system of date labeling is not standardized, the label should be used as a point of reference.

It is true that the quality of perishable products may decline after the date on the label, but importantly, there is an element of judgment involved in deciding at what point food should be discarded since the food may still be perfectly safe to eat.

So, how can you tell if your food is still safe to eat?

For foods that do not have mandated expiration dates, one approach is to trust your senses. They’ve been the human body’s guiding hand for hundreds and thousands of years, and are there to make sure you don’t eat anything that would harm you. Spoilage bacteria will typically produce a noticeable change in odor, flavor, or texture.

So, before you consume something, ask yourself: 

  • Does it look okay?
  • Does it smell okay?
  • Does it taste okay?

If your answers to these questions are all “yes”, then it is more than likely safe to consume.

What to do with aging produce

If you’re still not comfortable eating food too close to the date on the label, here are some options on what you can do instead of tossing it.

1. Make a broth or soup

Not only can you store broths for a month or more, but you can also make them using vegetable scraps and skins collected throughout the week. Broths and soups are great to make because they are unbelievably easy to make and are often made in one pot (so easier clean up too!) You can find a great recipe for a delicious 1-pot vegetable broth on the Minimalist Baker.

2. Fry it

Stir fry a big pan of vegetables for an effortless dinner addition that will last the whole week. For an easy recipe, check out this 30-minute stir fry recipe from A Simple Palate.

3. Caramelize it

Caramelizing is the process of cooking something with dry heat (in an oven or on a stovetop, with oil) to bring out the produce’s natural sugars. You can caramelize pretty much anything, but here are some standouts, courtesy of our friend at Life of a Lunch Lady:

  • Mushrooms
  • Carrots
  • Onions
  • Leeks
  • Pineapple

4. Pickle it

You can keep pickled produce in your refrigerator for days and add them to all kinds of dishes for some extra acidity and crunch. The best part? They’re super simple to make. Learn how you can pickle your vegetables on Bon Appetit.

5. Ferment it

When stored in a dark, cool location, fermented foods can last between 4 and 18 months, which means fewer trips to the grocery store and more delicious food for you and for family.

The lacto-fermentation process not only helps to preserve food but also increases its vitamin and enzyme levels. Full of gut-healthy probiotics and flavor, fermented foods can be made right in your very own home. For fermentation 101, check out this blog by Farmhouse on Boone.

6. Grow more from it

Take a look in your trash can or compost bin. That avocado you threw away? You can use its pit and grow yourself an avocado tree. You can do this with many different vegetables and fruits, and our friends at Food Revolution put together an easy guide on their website.