Decode the Mysterious Language of Food Dates

Woman in front of refrigerator inspecting a package of produce.


Almost 40% of food produced in the US is wasted in landfills and compost piles. By clarifying the mysterious “best by,” “sell by” and “use by” language on products, some say this number could be reduced by 25%. Surprisingly, the use of these labels is not as regulated as you might think. Many of these “dates” are not for the safety of food, but are put there by manufacturers to guarantee taste and texture.

Here are a few simple guidelines to help the next time you are cleaning out your pantry:

  • Best by – exactly that, it will taste best by a particular date
  • Sell by – most manufacturers use 7-10 days beyond this date for when it will taste best
  • Use by – manufacturers could also say “freeze by” and many products are still good beyond this date.

You’ll want to be more careful with meats and dairy. These can contain harmful bacteria and therefore it is generally agreed that they should be used within 3-5 days of opening. Always follow the instructions for proper storage, as this is another opportunity for bacteria to grow.

Reducing food waste will positively impact the environment and save you money on food. The next time you go through your pantry, consider giving those green beans you’re about to toss a second chance. While you’re at it, take a look at the rest of your food and ask yourself if you’ll really eat it — and if not, consider making a donation to your local food bank.

— By Dawn Jae, Bastyr dietetic intern, and Amy Frasieur, MS, RD, core faculty in the Department of Nutrition and Exercise Science at Bastyr University.