Almost all food products come with a date on the label. And let’s face it: those labels are much more confusing than they should be.
If you’re not sure what’s the meaning of a “best if used by” (or “best-by”) date, or you have no idea if you should toss a product that’s after its “sell-by” date, this short guide is for you.
Read on to learn:
- what does “best-by”, “sell-by”, and “use-by” dates mean (roughly)
- how to use each of these dates
- how product dating works
Why are Food Date Terms Confusing?
The most important reason is that the phrases used by manufacturers aren’t standardized or regulated. While most shelf-stable food products come with a best-by date, you might run into a product that has a different phrase printed on the label.
The second issue is that many terms have the same meaning. For example, “best-by,” “best before,” and “best if used by” mean exactly the same thing.
The third is that those phrases often aren’t self-explanatory.
Like, what does “sell-by” mean for you as a customer? Should you toss the product once it passes that date or not?
Or how do you interpret the “use-by” date? Is the product no longer okay to eat after that date or not?
As you can tell, it’s easy to get confused.
Fortunately, the Federal Safety and Inspection Service provides rough descriptions for the most commonly used phrases. I’m going to use those when describing the terms below.
Most Popular Food Date Phrases
For starters, you need to know that the dates on food products (except for infant formula) aren’t an indicator of food safety. In other words, those aren’t expiration dates by any means.
Those dates are there mainly to inform the customer how long the product should retain the best quality.
That’s why in many of my articles, I inform you about how long, roughly speaking, the described product keeps quality after the date on the label. For many shelf-stable products (like powdered milk or canned tuna) it’s often years. For others (e.g., most nuts) it’s not nearly as long.
Let’s talk about the meaning of the commonly used phrases, one by one.
Best-by date indicates how long the product is at its peak freshness. It has little to do with 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.
So, how long after the “best-by” date can you safely eat? That depends on the food product itself, unfortunately. Sometimes it’s weeks, other times it’s years. That’s why I run this site.
“Best-by” date can be found on all sorts of shelf-stable products, starting with pantry staples such as rice or pasta, through condiments like ketchup or mustard, ending with milk alternatives such as almond milk or oat milk.
Besides “best-by”, some products are labeled “best if used by” or “best before.” That’s the same thing.
Of all the popular phrases, this one is the most intuitive, I think. It simply informs that a product is best consumed by a certain date.
“Use-by” dates are (usually) much more strict than “best-by” dates.
If a food product comes with a “use-by” date, it means that the product will probably be okay to eat for only a couple of days past that date. Sometimes it’s 2-3 days, other times it’s 2 to 3 weeks, but it’s most likely no more than that.
Again, it all depends on the product, and that’s one of the reasons I run this site – to let you know how much time you can expect from a specific product.
If your infant formula is past its “use-by” date, you should discard it.
This term is kind of tricky.
Theoretically, it informs the retailer how long the product could stay on the shelf. But what does that mean for you, the customer?
Not much, unfortunately. The food can still be good to eat for a few days or even a couple of weeks. As usual, it depends on the product itself.
“Sell-by” is often labeled on milk, poultry, and eggs. Sometimes on dairy products, too. If you buy commercially prepared salads (i.e., tuna salad or potato salad) in the supermarket, some of these also come with a sell-by date.
Like with the “use-by” date, the period the product retains quality is usually relatively short, up to maybe a couple of weeks. Because of that, I treat the “sell-by” date the same way I treat the “use-by” date.
Some manufacturers use those phrases interchangeably, while others prefer to use one over the other. For me, it’s basically the same thing.