What Do the Dates on Food Packages Mean?

By , SparkPeople Blogger
When you go to the grocery store, you probably check several labels and tags. First, you check the shelf price tag and look for any specials. You might also compare the cost per ounce, which is also listed on the shelf tag. Many of us check the nutrition facts label as well.

But what about the dates on the packages you select? Do you check those, too? Why not? Is it because you don’t know what they really mean? If so, you're not alone.

We know that by law, food labels must be truthful. That said, there are many loopholes in labeling. Manufacturers can't lie to you about nutrition and ingredients, but they can easily mislead you into thinking something is healthier than it really is.

The dates on the packaging can confuse you, too, if you don’t know what they really mean.

Here are some general guidelines for interpreting dates on food packages:

Best if used by, freshness or quality assurance dates typically refer to flavor and quality--not necessarily to food safety. If foods are eaten by the date listed, the product will have maximum nutrients and peak flavor.

A sell by or pull date is mainly a recommendation for store management. Related to recommended shelf life, this date provides direction for shelf rotation and removal from shelves. It's not an indication that the food “goes bad” after the stated date. Even perishable products retain their flavor and freshness for an additional few days to a week after the date listed. Expired products don't have to be removed from shelves. In fact, they are often sold both in grocery stores and at closeout stores past those recommended dates.

Usually when we shop, we can take first pick at products, so select the latest date available.

Pack or package dates tell us when a food was packaged but don't guarantee safety or freshness. (For example, the born on date initiated by Anheuser-Busch claims that its beer tastes best within 110 days of this date.) Coded dates are something many of us pay little attention to until we hear of a food recall. These series of letters, numbers or a combination of the two indicates the batch of origination for the item. This number helps manufacturers and consumers track down products in case of a recall.

A use by or an expiration date is the date you will want to pay the most attention to because food should not be consumed after this date in most cases.

Here are some tips to help ensure the foods in your fridge and pantry are fresh and safe for your family.

  • Be sure to keep an eye on the dates on baking mixes. The dehydrated fats used can turn rancid.
  • Many canned foods will last for a year on your shelf if they are maintained at a temperature of 65 degrees F or less. Higher temperatures reduce the shelf life. A few foods such as fruit juices, peppers, sauerkraut, green beans and tomato products should be eaten within six months.
  • Never use any canned foods that do not look or smell right when you open them.
  • Leftover foods should be refrigerated in sealed containers and eaten within three days.
  • Once any package has been opened, the date on the package no longer applies and the item should be used immediately or refrigerated and used within several days.
  • Avoid purchasing cans that are bulging or oozing cans, which may indicate contamination. While slightly dented cans many times are perfectly fine, avoid purchasing them if the dent is around the lip of the can, which can affect the seal.
  • Review this handy guide from Real Simple.

How much attention do you pay to the dates that are on the products you purchase?

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I ALWAYS make sure I do not get dented cans, especially dents at the seal. My mom taught me that one early on in life and unless I drop the can, do not take anything dented EVER just to be on the safe side.

I didn't know those differences in best before or expiration dates though. Good to know :) Report
I have to be honest! I rarely check the dates on items but only because I can't go into grocery stores alone so have to go whenever someone is available to go with me then it's rush rush rush. But, I DO make sure I pull the milk, 1/2 and 1/2 from the BACK of the row because after having these products pour out as BLOB BLOB BLOB and not being able to take them back, I make sure to reach for the last ones. Report
I always check dates. When using milk close to the date, I smell it. Report
We just had our first experience with failing to check expiration dates at the fitness center where I am director. Our previous director had purchased far more gatorade and red bull than we needed to keep the cooler stock and between the over purchasing and the failure to rotate product when stocking, we had to throw out/give away a good bit of product.

At home, on the other hand, we do look at and smell of things closely if they are recently out of date. Many things are perfectly good to consume after the date but I draw the line at selling them to others. Report
I always check dates due to having an issue with a couple of items that were going to expire the next day - thought they would be okay and they were not. Now I try to buy things that have the latest date on them that I can find. Report
I always check the dates. I will buy certain items that are close to the expiration date if its cheap enough and use that item right away. Report
I always use eggs past the dates listed on the carton. I've never gotten sick. I'm not saying I won't ever get sick but the eggs always seem fine to me. Report
I ALWAYS check dates on foods. I have had several experiences in the past where I overlooked the dates only to get the food home and see that it was expired. Luckily I am able to return or exchange things at my local store but it is still a hassle. So, I just make sure to check every item. Report
Thanks for the link, in Nursing School we learned about this due the number of patients coming in to the clinics/hospitals with food related illnesses so we knew which questions to ask etc. On a personal note, I've ALWAYS checked label dates, it's a habit of mine that I don't know the origin of since my Mother rarely, if ever, checked dates on anything aside from eggs and milk. I used to volunteer at a food bank and was appalled at the foods being handed out to families with dates far beyond only to learn things the RealSimple website covers......though common sense (as it says) plays a huge role. Look at more than the dates....some products on the shelves obviously shouldn't be there if you truly look at them, most times due to handling methods during shipping, storage before hitting the shelves (for instance, the backrooms at Walmart or your local grocer are sometimes far from optimal) I use the "when in doubt, err on the side of caution" belief :) Report
I am a big date checker, especially on diary.

I always check the dates. Report
I always have checked the dates, afraid of eating something old and getting sick Report
he-he... I am always getting yelled at by people because somewhere down the line I developed this phobia of touching food if it is after, or even on, the sell by date. I've never had a run-in with accidentally eating spoiled food so I don't know how this came about, but I just can't bring myself to do it. Maybe I'm just crazy. =D Report
GREAT article...I wondered why my local grocery store still had items on the shelf just a few weeks after its 'Sell By' date...hmmm, makes me wonder how long it has really been on the shelf!
My husband used to work in the meat department at the local grocery store, and he says that meat is good for 5 days after the "sell by" date. Now if it says "Use or Freeze by", that is a different story. Report
Thanks for the information. I check experation dates, on meat and dairy, bunever thought about baking mixes. Report
I normaly only check the dates on dairy, eggs and meats. Anything else gets eaten to fast for me to worry about. I will start checking the cake mixes and prepackaged foods though. I did not think that the fats would go bad, or that they could go bad. Great article. Report
Thanks for the concise information. I'm teaching a 'cooking for one or two' class tonight and was looking for a way to communicate this very subject! Just another example of great and useful information on this site. Report
I always check the dates. I really liked this informational blog because as a Dietetic Technician I have learned the importance of food safety and the three day rule is so right on the money. Great Blog Report
Honestly, dairy products and meat are the only things I pay much attention to dates on. I probably should look more carefully at the other stuff but those are the foods that seem most likely to create health problems for me. Report
Dates on food are really to cover the STORE from law suits, so you can use the food AT HOME past the dates, as long as it "smells and tastes" alright. It is best to FREEZE food you think you aren't going to use quickly. Report
I always check dates because I need things with a long shelf life. Report
I check dates on bread, milk ect. Report
I always check the dates and try to choose the one with the date furtherest out.
But once home I don't necessarily throw the item away if it is past the date unless if its spoiled. Report
I always check dates, especially on bread and anything refrigerated. I'm one of those people you see at the grocery store pulling out all the milk cartons in the front to get to the freshest ones (which are in the back). Report
Thank you for this article. After spending a weekend cleaning out my Dad's pantry and arguing with him that really, the food items he bought in the late '90s needed to go, this is a great article that I can now send to him. Thanks. Report
Good info. Report
Yes, I check dates. Report
I always check my dates and I have taught my kids to do think also. My husband went shopping and bought yogurt which did not have a good date. The kids jumped all over him. Now he checks the dates most of the time. Report
Heh, I'm too poor to throw out food just because it's expired. If it looks and smells okay, lunch it is.... Report
I have never looked at the dates on eggs until just recently!! I learn so much from here. Mainly look at dates on meats, milk...but will keep my eyes more wide open....yea mom taught me well about the bent cans.....wonderful and useful article Report
Best go check the dates.. Report
Evidentally my mamma raised me right (that's scary) . I've always checked the date and never buy cans with dents. Report
I try to always check the dates. On rare occasion i do get something home past the day. Report
Thanks for the information.

I have been checking the dates but also learned how long to keep a item after the expiration date. Report
We always check the dates! Report
My daughter works at a grocery store and they recently had some big wig in who checked expiry dates on a ton of different food items. This store is in one of the more affluent neighborhoods. There was a very long list of foods sitting on the shelves that were way past their expiry dates. One item she mentioned was Cheez Whiz with an expiry date of ... 2006!!! Yikes! I'll be checking the dates from now on. Report
Interesting, I didn't know there were so many different types of dates. Report
Yup. Always check the dates. Report
I've probably tossed more than I should have, using these guidelines. Thanks for the "relax now" message. Report
Thanks KATILLATHEHUN for catching the error. The edit has been made. Report
I always check the dates and try to find the latest date on the shelf, especially for milk, eggs, and other perishables.
I too was without power for about 24 hours so I appreciate this article. Report
I work in a grocery store and their policy is fresh or free. If you find an item on the shelf past the date you bring up the out of date and one thats in date. We send the expired one back to reclaim or toss it out and the in date one you get for free. The dented cans we put reduced stickers on them, also any items that are close dated we put reduced stickers on them too. Report
I check the dates when I buy.
My son comes and just plays havac with our fridge. Some of the things I buy for them so if they don't come often enough they expire. He just starts throwing then gives us a talk. Report
Wait... am I reading this wrong? The first item includes "Use by" as a flavor and quality indicator, but the last item says "Use by" is an expiration date. Which is which? Report
I am surprised that some grocery stores use longer shelf life than others. One may use 3 days, others 5. Some edible foods are still quite good after their "sell-by" date. It is often best to use your senses such as site and smell also. Report
After having the power come back on after being off for 24 hours this article couldn't have come with better timing. Thanks!! Report
I check the dates on all of the food that I buy. I don't want to buy anything that has already passed the expiration date. I also check to make sure that there are no dents in any cans of food before I put them in by shopping cart. Report
I always check the dates. I like getting the most time out of my food, because I hate throwing it away. Report
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