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The truth about expiration dates

The dates you find on food labels can really be confusing. What many people believe, is that the date found on food is the date that they must throw the item in the trash, because by that point, it’s no longer safe to consume.

Fortunately, most of the time, this is not the case. The dates on food labels actually have nothing at all to do with the safety of food.

Expiration Dates

Here are the different kinds of dates and what they really mean:

Use by/best by/best before

These are usually found on items such as mustard, peanut butter, and pasta sauce. Food that is shelf-stable.

This date tells you how long the item will remain at the best quality (while unopened). After this date has passed, the food is still safe to consume, but you may notice subtle changes in texture, flavor, or color.

So, as long as the item has been stored properly, you can still use it past this date. As far as how long past this date the food will last – well, that will vary. If it develops an off-smell or looks generally unappetizing and much different than how it normally looks, toss it.

Sell by

You will find most items with sell-by dates are things like meat and milk – perishables. This date tells the store how long they can keep an item out for sale. If the date passes, they are no longer able to sell the item.

You definitely don’t want to purchase a perishable item whose sell-by date has passed, but you don’t necessarily need to consume it before that date.

For example, milk will last 1 week after the sell-by date in the refrigerator, chicken breasts will last 1-2 days, and yogurt 7-10 days. Visit the Keep it or Toss it page to see how long your favorite foods will last.

Expires/expires on

You will likely only find these dates on baby items such as infant formula and certain baby foods.

This is the only time you definitely want to make sure to use the item up before the expiration date.

Guaranteed fresh by

This date is often found on bakery items, such as bread and rolls. You can certainly still eat these items once the date has passed, but they will not be as fresh as they were before the date.

Do you remember the last time you threw something away because the date on the item had past? How many times have you done this unnecessarily, losing food (and your money) in the process?

Stop throwing away perfectly edible food! As long as you understand the dates on items, and are storing your food and beverages properly, you can stop tossing things in the trash – which means savings for you!


  1. teachermum

    Expiration dates on foods is one of my biggest pet peeves. I’m quite sure the food thrown away in North America would feed a drought stricken nation overseas, let alone those living in poverty here!

    FYI, milk lasts until it turns sour and it is scary now how long that can be. There never used to be expiry dates on anything…how did people survive! Trust me, smell the milk, you’ll know. And if your nose misses it (doubtful) your palate won’t! I can still smell that smell and I haven’t bought milk in 15 years! Unopened yogurt lasts months past the expiry date, yes, months. It may get a bit tangier but that is about it. And six month dates on a box of cereal? really? It lasts years. If it doesn’t seem quite as crisp, put it in the oven on a cookie sheet for a bit or make rice krispie type treats with it.

    Personally, I think the forced wastefulness of such a precious resource is shameful.

    • Nettie Colvin

      I agree with you 100% .I would rather get someone’s out of date cans in a heart beat then toss it away. I have lots that are out of date or I’d miss alot of meals if I went by the date.

  2. Nettie Colvin

    Hello. Thankyou for this important information that I will definitely pass along. I only have 1 thing to add. I purchased cerial from a variety store and no date was on the box just a code number. I found out it was months pass due date and it tasted fine but the roof of my mouth got very sore with blisters so I called the number on the box. They told me when cerial is older than due date it can get harder and damage the roof of your mouth. I don’t know how many cerials do this. The cereals with marshmallows will get squishy when to old but I remove the marshmallows and ferial is still good for quite awhile.

  3. Mei

    Cereal, milk, yoghourt and anything with vitamins added has an expiration date set by the vitamins, the product may be fine by that date, but the vitamins are not longer be there, they disintegrate faster than the product itself. Some of them like Vitamin C & A have a short time of availability, others can last longer. So look at the date for that. It’s safe to eat things even if they lost all the vitamins, but keep in mind it if you want them.

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