A new report co-authored by the Natural Resources Defense Council and Harvard Law School’s Food Law and Policy Clinic shows that confusion over expiration dates on food leads more than 90% of Americans to throw out food prematurely, so 40% of the U.S. food supply ends up in the garbage — unused — every year.
People mistakenly believe that expiration dates are about food safety when they are simply dates manufacturers use to gauge their products’ freshness. Most of the time, you can still eat food past its “best by” date without even noticing a change in taste or quality — that’s especially true of foods that do not need to be refrigerated.
“We have become so divorced from production of food and farming that we think food is only going to be fresh for a short amount of time, and we don’t blink an eye when we take something home and the date happens and two days later we throw it away,” says study co-author Emily Broad Leib, the director of Harvard’s Food Law and Policy Clinic.
Jena Roberts, vice president for business development at the food-testing firm National Food Lab, researches how “shelf-stable” foods are for manufacturers to help them determine what date they want to use to indicate when their product is at its best. “You might eat a granola bar a year after its date and think it still tastes fine. You don’t have the perspective. When we do testing, we have perspective because we are always comparing against a fresh product,” she says.
But just because a food — especially one that is packaged — is past its date, it doesn’t mean it will make you sick or even taste bad. See which foods have a shelf life that might surprise you.
Read our report coverage here.