It’s a common misconception that the date printed on packaged food is a firm deadline for when you should toss it. In reality, one of the only items in the US with a federally-regulated expiration date is infant formula― which is why “sell by” dates and “best if used by (or before)” dates are more of a guideline than a rule.
As Paul VanLandingham, a senior faculty member at the Center for Food and Beverage Management of Johnson & Wales University explained in an interview with WebMD, these numbers refer to food quality rather than food safety. While the former dictates how long a store should display a product to ensure its highest level of quality, the latter refers to long consumers should keep a product before it loses flavour or declines in quality.
When it comes to these 15 food items, you can disregard the date on the package.
You can keep dry, boxed pasta for one to two years past its printed date.
Dry pasta can be kept for one to two years past its printed date, according to Eat By Date. FoodSafety.gov, a food resource from the US Department of Health & Human Services, offers the same estimate.
Fresh (uncooked) pasta ― the kind you’ll find in the refrigerated section of the supermarket next to Italian cheese ― is only good for four to five days beyond the date printed on the packaging. When frozen, it will keep for six to eight months.
Cooked pasta, whether dry or fresh, can be kept for seven days in the fridge. In the freezer, it will stay fresh for six to eight months.
Breakfast cereal lasts six to eight months beyond the date on the box when it’s unopened.
When unopened, breakfast cereal can last for six to eight months past the date on the box. If opened, your favourite cereal will stay fresh for between four and six months. In contrast, cooked cereals such as oatmeal will only keep for four to five days in the fridge once prepared.
“Cereals don’t really go bad. There is not that much of a quality issue. If you leave your cereal box open, it can get stale, but you are still not going to get sick from it,” Emily Broad Leib, the director of Harvard Food Law & Policy Clinic, told TIME magazine.
No matter what date is on the carton, you can use eggs within three to five weeks of purchasing them.
You’ve probably heard that an egg is spoiled if it floats when immersed in water. All eggs, however, become more buoyant over time as their air cells increase in size, as the University of Nebraska ― Lincoln’s Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources explained in the article Cracking the Date Code on Egg Cartons.
No matter what date is printed on the carton, eggs are safe to use within three to five weeks of when you purchase them. Hard-boiled eggs keep for up to a week in the refrigerator.
Raw meat and poultry keep long past their sell-by date if you freeze them.
Although raw meat and poultry will only keep for a few days in the fridge, these items can be kept past their sell-by date if you freeze them. According to FoodSafety.gov, frozen ground meat will last three to four months, while a whole chicken or turkey can be frozen for upwards of a year.
“Food poisoning bacteria does not grow in the freezer, so no matter how long a food is frozen, it is safe to eat. Foods that have been in the freezer for months may be dry, or may not taste as good, but they will be safe to eat,” officials from the US Department of Agriculture report on the agency’s blog.
Raw fish also lasts much longer in the freezer.
Like raw meat and poultry, raw fish can last a lot longer ― between six and nine months, according to Eat By Date – if you freeze it. Smoked fish can last for three to six months in the freezer, while commercially frozen fish will keep for 10 to 12 months if it doesn’t thaw.
Additionally, unopened canned fish (such as tuna) can keep for between two and five years past its printed date.
Appearance and odor tell you more about whether cheese is spoiled than the date on the package.
Generally speaking, cheese lasts beyond its expiration date. As with many food items, appearance and odor will tell you more about whether cheese is safe to eat than the number on the package.
Even if cheese (whole, cut, or sliced) grows mould, it can often be salvaged by cutting around the decay. In fact, white mould is normal on so-called “bloomy rind” or soft-ripened cheeses like Camembert and Brie, according to the Gourmet Cheese Detective. Most coloured molds, such as the orange, blue, and green varieties, however, are not edible.
Of course, the brighter mould is ok when it comes to blue cheeses ― but only if it’s spread evenly in a vein-like pattern and not concentrated in one spot.
Leafy greens, including bagged salads, can be revived with ice water if they begin to wilt.
Not all produce comes with a sell-by date, but bagged items like salads and celery often have them.
Thankfully, as the Greater Chicago Food Depository points out, green vegetables can be salvaged past their prime. For example, you can resuscitate semi-wilted greens by submerging them in ice water for five to 10 minutes.
You can keep dairy milk five days or more past its printed date.
Dairy milk can last five days or more past its printed date. How long it keeps depends on its fat content. While non-fat milk can last between seven and 10 days, you can keep whole milk five to seven days past the date on the carton. If milk does spoil, it will look discolored with a lumpy texture and dispel a sour odor.
Shelf-stable, non-dairy kinds of milk keep much longer – up to a month past the sell-by date, if they’re unopened.
Canned foods have a long shelf life.
Although not all canned foods will last indefinitely, most have a shelf life that exceeds their sell by or best by date ― and it’s been proven by science.
A study published in 1983 in the Journal of Food Science found that antique canned goods from the 1930s and the 1860s (sweet corn and relish, respectively) retained their nutrients and didn’t appear to be spoiled.
With the exception of highly acidic items like tomatoes and pineapple, canned vegetables, and some canned soups are ok to eat a year or two after they “expire.” Canned meats, like corned beef and SPAM, keep even longer – between two and five years.
Unopened packages of frozen fruit and frozen vegetables are good for eight to 10 months beyond their printed date.
When unopened, yogurt will last two to three weeks in the fridge past the date on the container.
Bread is fine to eat if you don’t see any mould.
As with cheese, bread is ok to eat as long as there’s no mould present. According to StillTasty, packaged bread (such as white bread) will keep for five to seven days at room temperature if it’s stored properly. Once refrigerated, it will retain its freshness for three to four days before becoming stale.
If you want to extend its shelf life, packaged bread will stay fresh for at least three months in the freezer.
If you do see mould, however, throw the bread out.
Unopened jars of peanut butter can keep for up to a year past their printed date.
Whether or not it’s refrigerated, an unopened jar of peanut butter (with preservatives) will keep for a year past its printed date. Natural peanut butter has a shorter shelf life, lasting three to six months past its date if it’s stored in the fridge.
In contrast, a sealed jar of another popular, nutty spread ― Nutella – will keep just one to two months past its printed date.
Some condiments, such as ketchup and mustard, are good for a year or two beyond their printed dates if the bottles are unopened.
Honey only spoils if it’s introduced to moisture.
Honey is known for its seemingly indefinite shelf life, a characteristic that can be attributed to the sticky stuff’s chemical make-up. As a sugar, honey is a hygroscopic substance ― one that doesn’t contain much water but can absorb moisture from the air.
“Honey in its natural form is very low-moisture,” Amina Harris, executive director of the Honey and Pollination Center at the Robert Mondavi Institute at the University of California, Davis, told Smithsonian Magazine. “Very few bacteria or microorganisms can survive in an environment like that, they just die. They’re smothered by it, essentially.”
That being said, honey can spoil if it’s introduced to moisture. Still, contrary to popular belief, just because a jar of honey crystallizes doesn’t mean it’s gone bad. The grainy texture is caused by glucose molecules as they separate from water.
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