Food Date Terms and Their Meaning

Food labels offer a wealth of information about different foods. Unfortunately, the terms slapped on these labels are often confusing or hard to interpret. Understanding the meaning of different food date terms will help you make an informed decision about the food you buy. We’ve outlined the most common food date terms below and their meaning.


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Most Popular Food Date Terms

Best by Date

This term is used to determine when the durable life period of a pre-packed product ends. Durable life refers to the date recommended that the product is consumed for optimal physical and sensory quality (or, to put it simply, taste). Best by date indicates how long the product is at its peak freshness, not the safety of the food. Many foods will stay both safe and in good quality for weeks or even months past the best-by date.

Sell by Date

This term is used to inform retailers how long the product could stay on the shelf. This food date term is used mainly for controlling the quality of the stocks. As a consumer, you have to buy the food item before the sell-by-date passes for optimal freshness. Usually, the product will be still fine to eat after a few days (or even weeks in case of some products) after the sell-by date. Some of the food items that feature the sell-by-date include meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products.

Use by Date

Use by date is used when a product should either be eaten or thrown away by that date. Most refrigerated foods come with a use-by date. In many cases, the product with a use by date stays fine for a few days past that date, but that’s about the most you can expect. Generally, if a product is about 2 weeks past the use-by date, it’s safer to assume it’s spoiled and throw it away.

Expiration Date

This term, in theory, refers to the date that the food is no longer edible. It’s rarely used by the food manufacturers because it’s really difficult to determine when their product will go bad. And even if it’s used, the manufacturers have to play it safe and keep those dates fairly conservative.

<Woman in grocery store
em>Photo by Joshua Rawson-Harris on Unsplash

Why are Food Date Terms so Confusing?

There are so many reasons why common food date terms are so confusing. For one thing, the food manufacturers tend to use different terms even when the meaning of these terms is the same. Best by Date is the same as Best Before or Best if Used dates. Sell by date is often confused with Use by date simply because these terms sound so similar.

Another thing that causes confusion on food date terms are the too-vague terminologies and descriptions. Most food labels aren’t forthcoming with a food item’s manufacturing and best by information. This leads to more questions left unanswered.

Shoppers often have no idea where to find more information about these vague terminologies and this adds to the growing confusion over food date terms. In some cases, the confusion stems from the hard to read ingredients.

While it is difficult to determine exactly how long food items will stay edible, you can use the USDA guidelines to check for food freshness and safety.