Expiration, Sell-By, Use-Before, and Use-By Dates on Foods: What Do They Mean?

Posted September 7th, 2011 by Elaine Hastings, RD - Nutrition Expert and filed in Food Safety, health, In The News, Wellness, When to throw out food

Expiration, Sell-By, Use-Before, and Use-By Dates on Foods: What Do They Mean?

Often people open up their refrigerators, cupboards, and cabinets only to find foods with questionable integrity. Some people trust their noses. Others look for visible signs of mold or deterioration. Figuring out the difference between the “expiration,” “sell by,” “use before,” and “use by” dates may leave some people scratching their heads.

While it is always better that you are safe rather than sorry, the following guidelines and information should help to take the guesswork out of determining whether or not your food is good to eat.

Expiration date
The expiration date is the last day the food is safe to eat. If you have not consumed it by this date, throw it away. After the expiration date, it may cause someone to become sick if consumed.

Sell by date
This is the date that is printed for the supermarket. If the item has not sold by this date, the store should remove it from the shelf. It still may remain safe for consumption, if eaten after the marked date. Depending on the food, you still can store these items in your home for days to weeks after the sell by date.

Best if used before or by
The best if used before or by date means the food has a guarantee of peak freshness by this date, if it is properly stored. After that date, it will still remain safe to consume for a while, although it will have a lesser quality of taste, flavor, or nutrition.

Managing foods
For an exhaustive list of how to manage foods, visit the following Web sites:

Canned foods
Making sure canned foods are safe is not as easy to determine as more highly perishable foods.

Follow this advice:

  • Many times the expiration date has to do with the actual can and not the food inside of it; many foods will outlast the can, but if the can starts to lose its integrity before the food, the expiration date will reflect this
  • If the can is dented at a double seam on the top or bottom of the can, throw it away immediately
  • If the can has rust on it, throw it away
  • If the can has a severe dent on the side that pulls the top or bottom of the can, throw it out
  • If the can is swollen, do not consume its contents

Dating requirements
The only foods that are mandated by the US Dept of Agriculture to include dating requirements are infant formula and baby food. Many foods do not have any date or indication of freshness to determine whether they are safe to consume. Some foods use a different system called Julian dates, whereby the month is indicated by a number or a letter and the year is represented with only one number, representing the last number of the year it was produced (for example, 2009 is marked as a 9).

While following these guidelines can alleviate some of the confusion about whether a food is safe or not, the best advice probably is “when in doubt, throw it out!”


Office of Citizen Services and Communications, US Government Services Administration. Deciphering good expiration dates. Available at:http://blog.usa.gov/roller/govgab/entry/deciphering_food_expiration_dates. Accessed November 17, 2009.

Wood D. Nothing simple about food dating, expiration dates or ‘use by’ dates: most product dates relate to quality rather than safety. Available at: http://www.consumeraffairs.com/news04/2009/08/expiration_dates.html. Accessed November 17, 2009.

Info provided by RD411


Mercury Risk from Fish Varies

Posted May 6th, 2010 by Elaine Hastings, RD - Nutrition Expert and filed in Food Safety, health, In The News, Meal Tips

Last week I wrote about omega-3 fatty acids, and how they play a critical role in brain function, growth and development, and may reduce the risk of heart disease. They’re found in seafood and shellfish, and no doubt, some of my better-informed readers are weighing the risk of contaminants like mercury against the benefits of omega 3s.

You’ve possibly read about the dangers of mercury, which can occur in some types of fish. So let’s go over the facts. The most important one is this: the FDA says women who are pregnant, want to become so, or are nursing should avoid the fish most likely to have mercury contamination. This rule applies to young children, too.

Mercury levels are generally higher in older, larger, more predatory fish and marine mammals. That’s why I recommend (for people outside the aforementioned groups) consuming no more than one fishmeal per week from predatory fish like shark, tuna and swordfish. The FDA agrees, recommending no more than 7 ounces of fish from the high-mercury-potential list per week.

Do add other seafood meals to your menu, but I recommend no more than two per week from non-predatory fish (sardines, salmon, shrimp, etc.). Oily seafood such as fatty sardines, trout, herring and salmon are rich in omega-3 fatty acids. They are thought to reduce the risk of death from stroke, heart attack, and other cardiovascular disease. The American Heart Association also recommends four to six ounces, twice a week, of these types of fish.

Eating a variety of fish also cuts down on any negative effects caused by environmental pollutants. To decrease potential exposure from these types of contaminants, simply remove the skin and surface fat from a fish before cooking. If you know where your fish comes from, specifically, you can also check with local and state authorities in regard to potential contamination of local watersheds.

Here’s the good news: postmenopausal women and men middle-aged or older can relax about mercury consumption. For them, the benefits of eating fish far outweigh any potential risk. The main negative effect from mercury in fish is high blood pressure.

So, as with so many other things in life, moderation is the way to go. Unless you’re in the category of pregnant/nursing/trying or that of young children, a little fish can go a long way toward your heart health and brain function. And it tastes great! Coastal residents are particularly lucky to have easy access to the freshest of fish from local fish markets, retailers and restaurants. Find one or two sources you can rely upon, and support them.

Be aware of watershed issues if eating locally caught fish, and otherwise, simply enjoy this heart-healthy choice. Seafood is lean and low in saturated fats. It’s a great entrée in the evening, too, when that too-full feeling is particularly troubling. A good piece of fish is hard-pressed to make a diner feel he or she has over-indulged, unless it’s stuffed with something and doused in a rich sauce. Fish is also great on top of a salad, whether grilled or blackened.

As summer temps heat up, the added bonus of fish is that it can be cooked outside on the grill. Save on your air conditioning while doing something good for the bodies you feed. It’s a win-win.

Elaine Hastings is a registered dietitian and owner of Associates in Nutrition. Hastings can be contacted at info@ElaineHastings.com or by visiting AssociatesinNutrition.com. Visit her blog for the latest information on nutrition and great tips for staying healthy: AssociatesinNutrition.com/wordpress.

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