If you’ve ever bought food in a package – which, frankly, is most of us – you’ve seen a date stamped somewhere on it. These best before dates are intended to guide consumers so they can make smart choices for themselves and their families. Sometimes, though, these dates and what they mean can be confusing – so we’re breaking down what you need to know about best before dates.
What Are Best Before Dates?
Very few foods have a true expiry date. Most labels will have a ‘best before’; this indicates the date after which a food may lose its freshness, nutritional value, texture, or taste. You may also see voluntary terms like:
- ‘prepared on’
- ‘packaged on’
- ‘use by’
- ‘freeze by’
- ‘sell by’
Baby formula and meal replacement formulas have a true expiry, as opposed to a ‘best before’ date.
Food Quality Vs. Food Safety
Best before dates don’t mean that a food is safe – we’ve all probably opened packages of dairy-free yogurt or hummus only to find they have bits of mold. There are two separate issues at play: food quality and food safety. It’s possible to open up a package of guacamole a week after its best before date and not have any problems, or open a package of gluten-free bread a week before the best before date and find it totally dry.
Many foods can have a long shelf life, especially when stored properly, including:
- Beans and legumes
- Gluten-free grains
- Nuts and seeds
- Canned fish
- Salt, herbs and spices
- Gluten-free flours
- Dried and frozen fruit
Even fresh foods like eggs, fruit and vegetables can last when stored in the best conditions.
Best Before Dates, Consumer Confusion and Food Waste
Research indicates that many of us are confused about what best before dates mean. People tend to view these dates as gospel and toss something when it’s still fine to eat. It’s understandable: nobody wants to get sick from eating spoiled food!
Unfortunately, this excess of caution can lead to a lot of food waste in the home. In one study, 84% of consumers reported they threw out food near the date on the package. At the grocery store level, staff will remove food from the shelves before or near the package date knowing that it won’t sell – one grocery store manager estimated his store tosses 2–3% of its stock in this way. When we consider the cumulative effect of consumers and stores, that’s a lot of food being thrown away; especially when so many people around the world don’t have enough to eat.
Food waste also has an environmental impact. Discarded food has to go somewhere. In many cases it ends up rotting in a landfill, producing greenhouse gas emissions. When we throw food away, we also waste all of the energy used to create that food in the first place.
And, we can’t forget about the financial waste as it relates to our own bank accounts, either. You can read more about food waste, and discover zero waste recipe inspiration, in this post.
How to Navigate Best Before Dates
Think of best before dates as suggestions, not dogma. Storage will greatly impact your food’s freshness, taste and texture, so ensure that you store it for optimal freshness. Other ways to navigate package dates include:
- Use your senses – sight, taste, smell, touch – to assess your foods
- Create meal plans and shopping lists so you are buying (and eating!) what you need
- Sort through your pantry regularly to assess best before dates, and prioritize eating packaged goods with the earliest dates
- Make good use of your freezer to extend the life of your food
- Learn to master the art of re-purposing leftovers to jazz up an item or ingredient that has lost some of its texture or flavour
Using this know-how, we hope you have the confidence to make informed choices about the best before dates you see on packages!