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


Summer Vacation Helps the Body; Make Yours Healthy

Summer is vacation time. As a nutritionist and registered dietitian, I advocate for all the facets of healthy lifestyles, and near the top of the list is substantial time off from the daily grind. Don’t underestimate the importance of a vacation; your body actually needs the break, no matter what your circumstances are.

Daily life hurls all sorts of small stresses at us. The hormones released during short-term stressful situations actually help us to make quick decisions and avoid trouble. But too many of those hormones can actually deteriorate the cardiovascular system.

If you’re already at risk for heart disease, or have some risk factors working against you, the last thing you want to do is stay on the stress train. Most doctors will tell you your body needs a vacation. And by this, they don’t mean hanging out at the mall near the house, with your cell phone. A complete change of scenery and routine is what’s required to help the body rejuvenate and heal.

If you’ve got a Type A person in your world, put this article in front of that person and recommend a true getaway: no office politics, no irritating neighbors, no repairs that need to be made.

Next, don’t set up yourself for added stress when you get home. One week of weight gain can take months to lose, and every time you button tight pants, you’ll feel a twinge of disappointment in yourself.
Make a commitment to having a healthy vacation. Get in the mindset that you’re leaving for health reasons, and you want to feel as good as possible upon your return.

This is not to say you can’t indulge a little bit – an occasional “cheat” day is a good idea even at home. But promising yourself true rest, some form of pleasurable exercise and relatively healthy food can really start an exciting (and beneficial) new phase of your life.

Here are some tips which will help you avoid vacation weight gain. If you’ll have access to a kitchen, take your George Foreman grill and electric skillet and go to the grocery store. You’ll save a fortune, which you can spend on activities and attractions.

In many hotels, you can request a mini fridge and microwave, even if they’re not normally in the room. During a recent Orlando conference, the Ritz-Carlton charged me next to nothing for both. So I had all the health foods and drinks with me that I wanted, and spent far less eating out.

Odds are high you’ll patronize restaurants on vacation. Commit three rules to memory and they will make a big difference in your waistline over the coming years.
1. Never, never, never get regular salad dressing. Request a low-fat dressing.
2. Always, always, always ask for the salad dressing on the side.
3. No no no fried foods; order baked, boiled, broiled or blackened. Fast food is a trap – avoid it if possible, but if not, steer clear of fried foods, cheese and fatty condiments.

If you’re staying in a hotel with free continental breakfast, stay away from the pastries, doughnuts and hash browns. Instead, choose whole-grain breads and cereals, low-fat yogurt, fruits, and eggs (a good source of protein). Keep in mind you can still make oatmeal with the in-room coffee maker.

Also plan your vacation to include physical activity. If you’ll be in an urban area, check online for Ys, family parks or a family rec center. We try to plan activities within our vacation that are fun physical components, such as bike riding. Take a hike, play basketball, do a quick workout, and try something new. Even things you’re bad at (badminton, anyone?) create fun family memories while setting a healthy pattern.

Portion Distortion: My latest News Article

Posted August 25th, 2009 by Elaine Hastings, RD - Nutrition Expert and filed in The News-Press Column

We are portion distorted. That is most of us, despite our best intentions, seriously underestimate how much we are eating. In fact, this is one of the biggest roadblocks to weight loss success that I see in the people I counsel as a registered dietitian.

Restaurants and grocery stores have programmed us to have a “more is better” mentality when it comes to food. Fast food restaurants entice us to super-size our meals for just a few additional cents, and sit-down restaurants serve huge plates stacked high with pasta and enough meat for three people.

Package sizes for individual bottles of soda, salty snack foods and frozen meals have slowly grown bigger over the decades.

But because the only way to maintain long-term weight loss is portion control, we need to know what a true portion should look like.

Simply speaking, a portion is a designated amount of food for one person at one seating – or a serving size. The purpose of a serving size is to give people healthy and appropriate nutrition information and guidelines.

Serving sizes also help to standardize what you see on Nutrition Facts labels and allow government agencies, such as the USDA, to recommend amounts of different types of foods for optimal health and weight control.

One way to determine portion size is to weigh all of your food; however, that is impractical for most of us.

I have found in my experience that the next best thing is to use the following visual tips as guidelines:

- 1 cooked pasta serving (1Ú3 to 1Ú2 cup) = the size of a tennis ball sliced in half.
- 1 meat, poultry or fish serving (2 to 3 ounces) = the size of a deck of cards
- 1 milk or yogurt serving = approximately the size of your fist.
- 1 natural cheese serving (11Ú2 ounces) = 4 dice stacked on top of each other or the average thumb
- 1 serving of fruit = a tennis ball sliced in half. (With whole fruit, a serving is a medium-sized apple, banana, orange, or pear – keep in mind most of what we see in grocery stores is portion distortion. We tend to get large to extra-large varieties. If it’s chopped, cooked or canned, the serving size is one-half cup.)
- 1 serving of grains cooked, such as oatmeal = one-half cup an ice cream scoop.
- 1 serving cold cereal = 3Ú4 to 1 teacup or a fist.

Avoid portion distortion
1. When looking at the Nutrition Facts label on a product, get in the habit of glancing at the serving size (this may be futile; sometimes it’s in grams or another unit that’s not user-friendly) and automatically double or triple the calories, carbs and other nutrients you check to see how it all adds up when you eat more than a single serving.
2. At restaurants, send half your plate back to the kitchen to be put in a doggie bag as soon as you can. It is not rude.
3. Take out your measuring cups and train yourself – using water, dry rice or beans, a deck of cards, ice cream scoop, tennis ball, dice and some Play-Doh – to know what recommended portion sizes look like in your everyday bowls.
4. Train yourself to order only small or kid’s sizes when ordering anything at a restaurant, snack bar, etc.
5. Use a smaller plate when eating at home, and away from home, always leave some food on your plate.

- Elaine Hastings is a registered dietitian of Associates in Nutrition in Florida and was recently named president of the Southwest Florida Dietetic Association. Contact her at Elaine@AssociatesinNutrition.com or AssociatesinNutrition. com.