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Every year Americans throw out millions of pounds of perfectly good, edible food because of widespread misunderstanding of expiration dates. We look in the fridge, see a pack of hotdogs that expired two days ago and toss them out as if they had suddenly became radioactive. But take a closer look into the expiration date system, and you’ll find the shelf lives of food items are confusing, fairly arbitrary and are intended to protect the company rather than the consumer.
Quite simply, expiration dates exist to tell the consumer when the food at hand is at its “peak freshness.” It has nothing to do with when the food loses its nutrition, becomes hazardous to our health or even when it actually spoils. Many foods are not marked by when they go bad, but by the date in which their flavor simply changes. These are the “use by” or “best by” dates that you see on foods and in most cases they are completely decided by the company that produces the product. Food companies hire their own testers to determine at what point in time the item in question loses its “freshness,” a rather subjective term if you ask me.
Have you ever heard of a food “getting better with age?” Of course you’ve heard of cheese and wine, but what about canned tuna? Some foods have even been reported by consumers to be better past their expiration date, among them being Spam, sardines, and pea soup. But, once again, in the eyes of the food company, any change in a food’s flavor means it is past its “peak freshness.” So even if a can of soup arguably becomes more pleasant and “tastier” past a certain date, that means that its flavor has changed, and thus is past its expiration date. The can of soup isn’t rotten, it hasn’t turned into poison; it has simply changed its original flavor.
To make matters more confusing, there are even more markings that the companies throw on their food items. You buy a box of spaghetti and bring it home, only to realize that it’s doomed to expire in just a few days. But take a closer look — that expiration date might actually be a “sell by” date, and there is no need to throw it away. “Sell by” dates are there to help manufacturers keep track of when a store should sell or rotate its products. It has nothing to do with the consumer, so you might as well pretend like it doesn’t even exist. So even if you buy a box of spaghetti a year past its “sell by” date, this writer is willing to bet that you can eat it to no ill effect.
The only food items that actually have a legitimate expiration date are baby foods and certain dairy products. Infants are more prone to sickness, and their delicate digestive systems can be upset rather easily. Baby foods and certain dairy items are the only foods for which the government mandates the expiration date. The expiration date on the rest of the stuff you eat is left to individual food companies’ discretion, as well as their own self-made rules.
In my opinion, the reason that the food industry sets the expiration dates so early is to protect their skin. If you buy a bag of chips, and after a few months they taste a little “off,” the company doesn’t like you thinking all their chips are stale. They set the dates early to protect the flavor of their chips, and thus their brand, which has nothing to do with food safety. With some items, the food may become “less fresh” with time, but that does not mean that it less safe to consume. Now, I’m not saying you should eat a loaf of bread dripping with mold (if you do, you’re on your own here). But bread that is just a little stale is still perfectly edible — just bake it and you’ve got croutons you can use on your next salad. With just a little creativity, you can reduce the amount of food you waste, and save a bit of money while you’re at it.
In summation, the dates you find on your food have little to nothing to do with safety or quality. So next time you find a can of creamed corn a month or two or even a year past its expiration date, don’t throw it out. Grab a spork, toss it in the microwave and slurp it down safely knowing that if you don’t wake up tomorrow, it probably will not be because of creamed corn.
Jay Grafft has been aging a can of tuna for about six years now. Yum.