Understanding Expiration Dates

February 22, 2024

When you have canned goods and food items in your house that have expiration dates on them, it doesn’t mean you have to throw them out immediately. Most of these items are still good even beyond the expiration dates posted on them, and here is a guideline to let you know how long your food items will really last.

The Food and Drug Administration requires a “use by” date on many products, like baby formulas, vegetables, cereals, and most consumable products, because over time foods lose their nutritional value or become stale, so the “use by” dates are a guideline to let us know when the best time frames are for consumption of our goods before they spoil or become rotten. While the “use by” dates and expiration dates are handy, many goods, such as canned or bottled goods, are actually typically safe for consumption even years after “expiring”, so long as the bottle lids have not popped up or the cans have not bowed out, which is a sign of spoiled goods inside.


Guaranteed fresh Date. 

This usually refers to bakery items. They will still be edible after the date, but will not be at peak freshness.


Sell By Date 

The labeling “sell by” tells the store how long to display the product for sale. This is a guide for the retailer, so the store knows when to pull the item. This is not mandatory. The issue is quality of the item (freshness, taste & consistency) rather than whether it is on the verge of spoiling. Paul VanLandingham, EdD, a senior faculty member at the Center for Food and Beverage Management of Johnson & Wales University in Providence, R.I., tells WebMD the “sell by” date is the last day the item is at its highest level of quality, but it will still be edible for some time after.


Use By Date

This is the last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality. The date has been determined by the manufacturer of the product.


Best if Used By or Before Date

“Best if used by (or before)” date. This refers strictly to quality, not safety. This date is recommended for best flavor or quality. It is not a purchase or safety date. Sour cream, for instance, is already sour, but can have a zippier, fresh taste when freshly sour (if that’s not an oxymoron!)