Sustainability Series: Best Before Dates vs. Expiration Dates

You’ve heard it before, and you’ve likely even said it: “When in doubt, throw it out.” Unfortunately, this old adage leads to tones of food waste every year that is likely avoidable. We have likely all at some point taken a whiff of the jug of milk to see if it’s still good or not, but Health Canada advises against relying solely on our senses to determine food quality.  Our noses cannot detect the level of bacterial growth that may have happened, so food may have spoiled without our knowing it.  Paying attention to different dates on the food packaging can help us determine whether we should throw it out or not, but it’s definitely not a hard and fast rule.

A ‘Best Before’ date is a mandatory regulation by the government for all manufacturers to put on their food product if its shelf life is 90 days.  It is an indicator of food quality of an unopened product and not food safety, before or after the product is consumed. Food may still be safely consumed after the best before date; however, you may notice changes to taste, texture, and some nutrient loss may have occurred.  ‘Best Before’ dates are not the same as expiration dates, which means the nutrients in the food product will have been lost and cannot be consumed (e.g. Baby formula). The other date you may see is the ‘Packed On’ date. This typically refers to produce and prepared foods such as sandwiches and salads.  Choosing the products with the most recent ‘packed on’ date will give you the longest shelf life at home.

Be wary of the products that have a shelf-life greater than 90 days. Not from a food safety perspective, but from a marketing point of view. ‘Best Before dates’ are only mandatory for shelf-lives less than 90 days. Many companies may put a date on their label to get you buying more.  If you notice your box of unopened crackers has a ‘best before’ date of one month ago, they are likely still perfectly fine to eat.

Naturally, there are a lot of stipulations that come along with these dates. Here are a couple of the factors that can change the dates of food safety and quality.

  • Opened products
    The ‘Best Before’ date is specifically for an unopened item. Apparently, if the product has been opened, all bets are off. Proper storage is key here, especially when it comes to dairy products. For the storage life of opened products, this chart can be helpful:
  • Freezing products
    Freezing a food will stop or slow down the degradation process, but it does not kill bacteria. The shelf life can be extended from weeks to months by freezing foods, but the food will need to be thawed and reheated properly.
  • Product damage
    A dented can does not necessarily mean unsafe contents.; however, if a dent in a can has led to a bulging can in any way, do not purchase or consume it, as bacterial growth has likely occurred and is producing gas, leading to the bulge.

Best case scenario is to use your ‘Best Before’ dates as your rough guideline.  The product will still likely be safe for consumption even after the date has passed, especially if it has remained sealed in the back of the fridge.  For more information, check out the following links below:

Do you consume items past their best before date? We’d love to hear your thoughts on the subject in the comment section below. 🙂