There can be a lot of confusion on what these terms mean. We talked to our science editor, Paul Adams, to get to the bottom of it.
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What’s the main difference between these terms?
First, none of the terms are regulated or officially defined. And it’s confusing! The FDA recommends that manufacturers stick to the label “best if used by” to avoid confusion (and unnecessarily thrown-out food).
But that certainly isn’t standardized. There are three main labels you’ll likely see on packaging:
- “Use by” is typically for foods that are considered perishable, such as meat and dairy products like cheese.
- “Best by” is more of a guideline for the customer and indicates when a product’s quality may start to decline. Generally, the product’s flavor and texture may diminish after this date. (You might notice that your tortilla chips may be a little less crunchy, for example.)
- “Sell by” dates are more for the retailer—a date by which shelved products can be sold before they need to be moved off the shelf for new products.
However, none of these terms are meant to convey food safety.
Manufacturers don’t do safety-related labeling for the most part because it gives them a liability. If a company provides a date and something spoils before that date, they’re on the hook.
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So, how can you tell when something should be thrown out?
These dates are not strict guidelines. Generally, customers should buy the latest date available for the best product quality.
The shelf life of food varies so much depending on how it is stored that a specific date can’t be precise. (Fun fact: expired cocoa powder is fine to use—even years past its expiration date.)
Rather than using best-by dates as definitive indicators of whether a product has spoiled, it helps to use them in tandem with your senses to make a decision.
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Smell is an excellent marker in determining whether a product has gone bad. Texture is also important. Sliminess, especially regarding meat, can be a sign of bacterial growth and spoilage. Additionally, if the product’s color seems off, you may want to hold off on eating it.
A few words to live by: When in doubt, throw it out. It’s not worth risking an upset stomach (or worse!) if something looks or smells off.
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Bottom line: These terms only refer to the quality of the product and are not about danger. Use your senses, not just the date on the package, to make your final decision.