If you’ve been quarantined for a few weeks, you might be scraping the back of your pantry, rediscovering boxes of pasta or cans of chili you purchased and forgot about months ago. The first thing you’ll probably do when considering whether to eat these back-of-shelf, last-resort options is check the date printed on the side of the container.
But what does that date really mean?
Most people refer to these digits as the expiration date, but that term can be misleading. In actuality, there’s no way for food manufacturers to actually know when food will become inedible, it’s virtually impossible for them to predict a real expiration date.
But even if the food product says “sell by” or “use by,” these dates are nothing more than the manufacturer’s best estimate as to how long the food will stay fresh. And chances are, it’s a conservative guess—food companies would rather you dispose of unused products that are still usable than eat products that might not be so fresh.
The truth is, these dates do not predict when the food in question will become completely inedible. In fact, they have nothing to do with your safety or health at all. They’re simply there to give you a loose concept of when the food will be at its peak freshness. It doesn’t indicate spoilage and doesn’t necessarily indicate that the food is no longer safe to eat.
So why do the dates exist at all? Well, if you’re rattling through your pantry right now trying to find something to cook on day 30 of your quarantine, it’s helpful to get a vague concept of how long it’s been since the food in that container was made.
The good news is, a lot of food lasts much longer than we think. Canned or jarred foods, like soups, chilis, or preserved fruits or vegetables, can last for years in their sealed containers as long as you don’t open them. Other foods like rice, oats, lentils, beans, honey, and molasses have virtually no expiry. Even eggs can last three to five weeks past their sell-by dates if you keep them refrigerated.
The key is to use your best judgment. If it smells or looks off, you should avoid putting in in your mouth.