Save yourself money and avoid unnecessary waste.  

By Meghan Overdeep
March 12, 2018

To toss or not to toss, that is the question.

It may seem scary, but many store-bought foods are safe to eat past their printed expiration dates. That's because, as John Ruff, president of the Institute of Food Technologists in Chicago, explained to NPR, companies set these limits to protect the reputation of their products, not to keep you safe. According to the USDA, expiration dates are only used to indicate safety on baby formula.

"In 40 years, in eight countries, if I think of major product recalls and food poisoning outbreaks, I can't think of [one] that was driven by a shelf-life issue," Ruff said.

Adding to the confusion is the fact that there is no universal labeling system in the U.S. Here's a quick explanation of three of the most common phrases, from the USDA:

Best if Used By/Before: when a product will be of best flavor or quality.

Sell-By: tells the store how long to display the product for sale for inventory management.

Use-By: the last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality.

As a general rule, you can count on the following four kinds of food to be OK to eat past their printed dates:

Canned Foods

As long as the can maintains its integrity (meaning no dents, bulging or rust) canned foods can last long past their expiration dates.

Dairy Products

Yogurt, milk, and cheese are usually safe until you obvious signs of spoilage are visible. Milk can last five days past the sell-by date.


Pasta, cereal, cookies, etc. are usually safe to eat, even when they taste stale.

Frozen Foods

Fruits and vegetables in your freezer are also safe past their expiration dates. Keep in mind that freezer burn will do a number on the taste though.