What's In a Best-Before Date?

What's In a Best-Before Date?

While attending university, I worked in grocery/pharmacy retail, and we used best-before dates as a way to tell which stock should be at the front of the shelf. In the case of over-the-counter medications, we had to remove products that were past their date because they couldn’t be guaranteed to have their stated potency. The pharmacist was pretty clear that outdated grocery items, as well as pharmaceuticals, weren’t harmful, just potentially ineffective or stale. That’s it.

That was interesting to learn. I had always seen people use these dates as an “is it safe for me or not” code. In my own life, I had often used products past their date and not had any ill effects, so it was nice to have someone affirm that for me.

Fast forward a few years and a certain member of my household thought my irreverence for dates made me a little cavalier about food safety. To settle the matter, I took an introductory food-safe course. I learned that there are two categories of food that have very different potential health issues: shelf-stable food and perishable food.

Shelf-stable food that has been commercially packaged is the simplest situation. At the food-safe course I specifically asked about best before dates. Their answer? Shelf-stable foods past their date are OK to eat if they haven’t been opened yet – the only compromise will be flavour and freshness. Here’s an official reference from the CFIA’s website that also helps clarify what the variety of terms like “sell by” and “freeze by” mean.

Once a product has been opened, the date is much less useful. That’s where experience comes in. A quick sniff and a look should tell you if anything has gone wrong. Opened shelf-stable wet foods, like canned beans or tomatoes, go mouldy eventually – and that’s pretty easy to tell. Shelf-stable dry foods, like spices and flours, either cake together from humidity, or go stale and flavourless (I used ancient bay leaves that had zero flavour for years. I bought a new bag and I was like “OH that’s what they are supposed to smell like!”). Any food that contains oils, like nuts, whole grain flours or oil, can go rancid once exposed to air – that’s a good one to learn to sniff out!

Perishable food is anything that requires refrigeration to stay edible, like meat, dairy and seafood. These types of foods have different date and labeling rules, which includes required instructions on how to properly store them. Knowing how to safely store food at proper temperatures and how long it takes bacteria to multiply to the point of causing food poisoning are the real keys. If you want to learn more, here’s a handy link with the info.

As always, I think prevention is better than cure. My top two tips to avoid outdated food are:

  1. Make a meal plan each week and only buy what you need – that way there’s no extra to go bad in the cupboard or fridge.
  2. Go through your fridge every week and your pantry and spice cupboard once every two months or so, and plan meals around anything in there that needs to be used up.  I recently went through my spice cupboard and found a Moroccan spice mix that had been given to us as a gift. I made a delicious baked vegetable dish with it and now it is all used up (and I’m going to reuse the pretty tin it came in!).

There you have it, my take on best-before dates: great for rotating stock, handy to tell if something will taste like it’s supposed to, but doesn’t actually tell you if it’s safe to eat or not. What about you? Do you follow best before dates on your food closely? Do you have any good tips for avoiding outdated food in the house? Join the conversation below.