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What You Need to Know About Food and Expiration Dates

by David W Engelhardt

In the grocery store, food freshness and safety is likely one of the first things on your mind. Although not required everywhere in the United States, most food packaging comes with at least a few dates recorded on it. "Sell By", "Use By" and "Expires" dates are useful tools when it comes to deciding what loaf of bread or which carton of juice to get. In order to get the most use out of the information available, let's take a few minutes to make sure we know what all these phrases mean.

Sell By

The "sell by" date is the date when the store must sell the particular item. One thing to note though is that most well-packaged items are safe for 1-2 days after the sell by date. That aside, it's best practice to buy the item on or before the sell by date. And if you do spot an item in a store past its sell by date, be sure to tell a store employee.

Use By/Best if Used By 

This date is given by the maker of the product. It is the estimated date when the food's FRESHNESS begins to decrease. You read that right - "Use By" has nothing to do with food safety, only with freshness. It also has nothing to do with when you purchase a food, but rather with when you actually eat it. If you don't frequently shop, you can plan ahead and find items that have the use by date that meets your needs.

Expires/Do Not Use After 

The expiration date is when a product begins losing its actual nutritional value or begins to not work. Foods will begin to spoil and ingredients in recipes won't act like they should. Remember that in order for an expiration date to be accurate, the product must have been well stored and well handled. Be safe - as your food products get closer to the expiration date, inspect them closer, perhaps even smelling them to see if they seem normal. And if you have a product you purchased ages ago, make sure to look for the expiration date.


This is a date used by the product's manufacturer simply to track the batch. It has no practical meaning to the everyday consumer.

As you can see, this is simple stuff. Properly used, this information can go a long way to keeping your body healthy and your appetite satisfied.


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